View from the C-Suite: Mastermind Toys concocts a master strategy

Sarah Jordan, CEO of the toy and children's book retailer, explains how the company is upping its digital game ahead of the holidays.

Sarah Jordan, Mastermind

Mastermind Toys began in 1984, when Toronto brothers Andy and Jon Levy opened a 300-square-foot space selling software for home computers. The following year, they opened a second store with an expanded assortment of toys, games and books – as well as complementary in-store gift-wrapping designed and made in-house.

Today, Mastermind Toys is one of the largest specialty toy and children’s book retailers in Canada, with 68 locations across the country.

In January, CEO Sarah Jordan replaced Jon Levy – who had helmed the business since its founding – with a mandate to make the growing retailer more digitally connected and consumer-centric.

“I knew that we needed to build out our digital experience and bring the same wonder kids feel in our stores to our website,” she says. “Candidly, we were lagging our competitors in terms of our digital capabilities, so we really needed to up our game in the digital arena.”

Jordan, who has worked with The Boston Consulting Group and arrived from Scotiabank (where she served as SVP of customer experience and omni-channel strategy), immediately got to work implementing a new digital plan. (The retailer has since been nominated for a Most Innovative Retailer award at the 2020 Toy & Game International Excellence Awards in Chicago).

What steps have you have taken to advance Mastermind Toys’ digital transformation? 

mmt-Exterior-360x504When I came [into the role], I had bold ambitions for our digital transformation. But when we decided to close our stores coast-to-coast before the government mandate, we almost immediately pivoted to accelerate that digital strategy. While we were already working on the overhaul of our website, we quickly had to introduce curbside pickup. We continued to develop our website, which we launched in the summertime, and we also made sure that we had experiences that went along with that.

We introduced buy online, pick up in store. And not only did we offer a curbside option, we also offered a faster swim lane experience in the store – which we called Woo-hoo! HQ, since the word ‘woo-hoo’ is part of our DNA. People could come into a store or get their curbside pickup, but if they wanted to add something to that purchase, or if they wanted to get it wrapped, they could do it faster by going to this dedicated zone.

We also focused on our social channels to stay true to our DNA of ‘Play is Kids’ Work.’ Over the course of the year, our social channels have tripled in engagement and followers. It wasn’t just about selling games, toys, puzzles and books. It was about engaging with our customers, including through our daily 10 A.M. live Story Time in which we had Canadian authors and illustrators and our book curator read a few books every day at that time.

As we head into the holidays, for the first time ever, we put our annual gift guide online and made it shop-able directly from our website.

We also made sure our customer service hours reflected when people were engaging with us digitally. So we did a complete overhaul of that team, thinking about the times and the windows when our customers would need that support.

Finally, we filmed videos on how you could do a curbside order or place a web order because we know some of our most loved customers are grandparents who were using some of these digital experiences for the first time.

Outside of social, what kind of marketing do you do in a typical year? Have you taken a different approach to those channels in light of the pandemic? 

PIKE-4620In addition to our social channels, we have a loyalty program called Mastermind Perks. And we have a significant email database we use to connect with our customers, so email has also traditionally been part of our [mix]. But this year, we’re leaning into expanding how we talk to our customers in new ways.

First, we have two pop-ups right now in Hudson’s Bay (pictured right) that went live [last] Friday, so we’re reaching new customers by partnering with an iconic Canadian retailer. Secondly, we’re going to be part of the Santa Claus parade, which is something that we’ve never been a part of.

We’re trying to reach out to more customers coast to coast by engaging with them not only through digital means like email and social media. We’re typically very light on print – we don’t do weekly flyers. But we do have this iconic gift guide, and we’ve distributed it this year to ten times as many families as last year. That’s a physical, printed gift guide in addition to the digital one.

I’ll say one more thing on that: coming into Mastermind Toys, I didn’t know how much our in-house creative studio [called Mastermind Toys Playroom] does – [because] we don’t use agencies. Our creative team designs our wrapping paper that’s free in our stores every day. They design our stores, our website. They also designed the Santa Claus Parade float.

Many retailers have either moved up their holiday promotions or made them longer this year. What are your plans for this all-important shopping occasion? 

We typically see the seasonal shopping trend peak in December. And over the past couple of years, we’ve been noticing the trend has been moving later and later into December.

This year, we’re seeing a reversal of this trend. Customers are crossing off their holiday shopping lists earlier than ever to avoid lineups, crowds and last-minute shopping trips into the store. So we started to offer exclusive holiday deals as early as September. And we made sure our holiday gift wrap was available in our stores at that time.

As a result, our stores are now in full holiday mode. We’ve unveiled new in-store signage to bring the warmth and the wonder of the holiday season for those visiting us in our 68 locations. We’ve also introduced new social distancing stickers with reindeer footprints on them, because we believe that it’s important to make even moments like standing in line special. And as I mentioned, we’ve launched our first ever pop-up stores with Hudson’s Bay at Sherway Gardens and Yorkdale Mall, so we can reach more customers over the holiday season.

What are customers most interested in buying this year? 

Families have reimagined times of togetherness and are looking for new ways to celebrate the season. So games and puzzles that have been popular since the start of the pandemic, we’re seeing this trend continue, as families are going to be more at home and not going on vacation and likely not seeing as many extended family members.

We’re also seeing a continued interest in outdoor categories, which again, have been very popular since the pandemic. So we’re starting to see winter toys and accessories peak in terms of what people are buying.

We want to make sure that parents can still celebrate the spirit of the season, so we’re leaning into the idea that celebrations don’t need to be extravagant events – they can be the simple moments like when a child opens a gift that inspires them, makes them laugh or opens their eyes to a new way to play. So, this year, our gift guide theme is ‘So Much to Celebrate.’

We’re seeing that gifting will still be important and we know that there will be fewer gifting moments, so we’re noticing shoppers looking for higher-ticket items to treat the kids to something that will surprise and delight them after a challenging year. We found this to be especially true during our Grandparents Day – the first Tuesday of every month – where they’re buying for all their grandkids in one trip.

Finally, we know customers are looking to gift digitally, so we’re spending our time talking about curbside, talking about buy online pick up in store, and we’re suggesting they send gifts to their loved ones for them to pick up at their nearest store.

This interview is part of a series for Strategy C-Suite, a weekly briefing on how Canada’s brand leaders are responding to market challenges and acting on new opportunities. Sign-up here to receive the latest stories. 

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.