talking shop

CAMP's Cofounders Say Their Biggest Competition Isn't E-Comm—It's "Places Where Families Spend Time Together"

CAMP cofounders Ben and Nikki Kaufman explain how they've turned toy retailing on its head.
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Francis Scialabba

· 6 min read

Since Toys “R” Us’s 2017 bankruptcy, the bulk of toy sales have been split between big boxers like Walmart and Target. Mega retailers stock everything from Elsa dolls to make-your-own slime kits, but they haven’t changed up how parents (and their kids) shop in decades.

CAMP, a toy store cofounded by married duo Ben Kaufman (CEO) and Nikki Kaufman (Chief People Officer) in 2018, takes a different tack. Their stores ditch fluorescent lighted aisles for in-store playgrounds and interactive classes; as a result, customers spend between 90 minutes and two hours at CAMP per visit. The Kaufmans explained to me why sacrificing SKUs for parent-kid playtime was worth the risk. Read our interview below.

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What did you learn during CAMP's first year that informed how you're approaching your business this year? Did anything surprise you?

Ben: Not long after opening our first store we saw how much fun kids had playing in our small theme-specific play experiences. The Glitter Room Disco Ball Cabin and Musical Dock from our BaseCAMP theme brought so much joy to our families that we included more playable interactive spaces in future stores and themes.

We also found new ways to make those experiences more shoppable—nailing the right balance between play and product, which is the key to our business. Families have been spending anywhere from 90 minutes to two hours a visit which has been a great surprise. We’ve introduced more general merchandise for grownups like houseware, accessories, and giftables and more kids clothing as well.

One of our leading categories in our first year was actually our own branded line of CAMP clothing and accessories which have some of the coolest designs, in amazing quality fabrics. We’re excited to grow this side of our business, as it will also tip the scale towards becoming a more general retailer and deliver a great shopping experience for the whole family.

Nikki: Families also love our CAMP counselors (store associates). The CAMP magic begins the moment families walk through the door and their first interaction is with a warm and friendly CAMP counselor. When we started CAMP we knew that we wanted our customer experience to be engaging and playful, and hired counselors from non-traditional backgrounds -- many of them are former or current actors, magicians, and musicians. They engage with families throughout the experience from lively product demos, pretend play, and storytelling and many of them lead activities in our theatre from singalongs to story time and kids yoga classes. One of our counselors even wrote and recorded our official CAMP song that plays in the stores.

When CAMP first opened in 2018, offering fewer products per sq. ft. to prioritize in-store experiences was seen as fairly risky, particularly for a toy retailer. A year later, what do you see as the payoffs for taking that risk?

Ben: We live in an age where convenience is everywhere and families can get everything they need with the click of a button. At CAMP, we prioritize experiences that give families a reason to get out of their house, and have created a special place where kids and parents can spend time together. CAMP is becoming a part of families' daily and weekend rituals—we are a family's answer to “what can we do today?” What we are going for is family time, rather than where you can buy “x” or “y” toy.

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In the store, the entire experience is merchandised so we’re not sacrificing one for the other. Key to CAMP’s model is a seamless blend of play and product throughout our stores. Our interactive experiences are shoppable, with shelving incorporated into the theme sets and merchandised according to the part of the experience you’re in. We have a very deep assortment and high sku density in our stores, and it’s more about discovery and storytelling. The payoff is simple, as families love CAMP and return weekly. It’s about discovery, play, and community and that creates stickiness and tons of loyalty. Of course, our change in themes always keeps things fresh as well.

CAMP’s stores are currently spread between New York City, Connecticut, and Texas. How did you determine where to open your first stores? Which new markets is CAMP most interested in entering later this year (if any)?

Ben: We decided to open our Flagship store on 5th Avenue in the Flatiron District in New York City where there are a ton of young families and foot traffic. It also happens to be blocks from where Nikki and I lived with our two sons when we came up with the idea for CAMP, after realizing there was nowhere great to go as a family. From there, we looked at other areas and locations where young families live or travel to, including City Point in Brooklyn; South Norwalk, Connecticut; Dallas, Texas; and Hudson Yards. In our expansion we also consider markets where brands will want to activate in our stores. Since day one, our plan was to make CAMP a national retailer, and you can expect to see us in a few more U.S. locations this year.

E-commerce hasn't made it easy for toy retailers to thrive. What do you think prepares CAMP to endure in a market that's increasingly online?

Nikki: Since launch, our vision for CAMP was to create a place where parents are equally as happy as the kids. We’ve accomplished this by combining playful experiences with an amazing product selection and thoughtful programming that parents and kids can do together. We don’t see ourselves as competing with other retailers, but rather with other places where families spend time together. CAMP gives families the opportunity to create shared memories together, and quickly becomes part of their weekly rituals, and that’s why we are seeing such early excitement for CAMP.

Ben: We’re brick and mortar first, but we feel it’s important to have an online presence too. We launched our e-commerce platform in November, so if you don’t live near one of our stores you can still experience the magic of CAMP. Our online shop mimics the interactive and playful nature that families find in our stores where you can play with toys before you buy them, so we worked with eko to create these amazing interactive videos that allow you to virtually play before you purchase.

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