People spend years, lifetimes in the retail business and don’t get to do what retail newbie Jennifer Hayman Kaplinsky is doing this weekend at the Shops in Highland Village.
She’s opening her second store, a children’s clothing store that Kaplinsky created called Neon Elephant.
Her first store, a Learning Express franchise, opened on Black Friday in 2020 in the same shopping center.
“People thought I was crazy, but I’m still in shock at how well we’ve done,” Kaplinsky said. “When COVID started, I needed a plan, and I used it [the pandemic] to end one career and start another.”
Kaplinsky had what most would consider a great job as a managing director at a big consulting firm in Dallas. The world health crisis coincided with her 25th anniversary as an Accenture consultant to airlines, hotels and casinos, and Kaplinsky saw both as signals that it was time to do something new.
The shift to retailing means she can be around her kids more, and she gets to interact with families who are regular customers, moms who can only work mornings and teens who need off for varsity bowling or choir. The elementary school needs a donated basket. Girl Scouts are selling cookies out front. The shopping center is going to have a festival so the store gets T-shirts made.
“Before I was traveling all around the world and didn’t think much about my little bubble out here” in Lantana, where her family lives, she said.
She said she was ready for a second store but didn’t want to open another Learning Express, which would have to be several miles away in a different suburb. There are 90 Learning Express stores in the U.S. and 11 in Texas, including local franchise stores in Plano and Frisco.
That’s when Kaplinsky had an idea for a children’s clothing store. The shopping center had space with vacancies from the pandemic. It also had success with existing restaurant owners opening second concepts. The 360,000-square-foot neighborhood shopping center is anchored by Whole Foods Market, Barnes & Noble and an AMC Theater.
“We have a nice mix of national and local brands, and this community is supportive of local boutiques,” said Ginny Tirey, marketing coordinator for the center.
“Jen said she had an idea that there was a need for good children’s clothing, something other than Target,” Tirey said. The Shops at Highland Village is surrounded by high-income households, with 40 elementary schools in the Lewisville Independent School District and lots of nearby rooftop construction. A 100-acre equestrian farm next to the center is being carved up for 84 homes that will start at $900,000.
Kaplinsky used The Dallas Market Center to stock her store, with 60 of the 70 Neon Elephant vendors coming from the Dallas showrooms, she said. A crowdsourcing branding firm helped come up with the name. It couldn’t sound too young because the store caters to newborns to tweens, Kaplinsky said.
The “l” and “e” in elephant are emphasized in the store’s logo as a nod to her Learning Express store around the corner.
Kaplinsky approached Learning Express with a plan. The biggest U.S. toy store franchiser agreed to provide software and point-of-sale hardware for Neon Elephant and considers it a pilot. Kaplinsky is funding the rest. The clothing store could end up as a new franchise someday.
Kaplinksy can share employees at her Learning Express store and the Neon Elephant since they’re in the same shopping center, and she’s also cross-marketing them with a loyalty program. She thinks there may be other Learning Express franchisees out there who would be interested in a complementary concept that Kaplinsky is creating from scratch.
Mike Derse, director of business development at Massachusetts-based Learning Express Toys, said the company hasn’t made any formal commitments to start a new franchise brand. His company considers Neon Elephant a pilot program that will be tested for two or three years.
“Jen is acting as the entrepreneur here, much like our founder Sharon DiMinico who opened a toy store in 1987,” Derse said.
Learning Express became a franchise in 1990. Depending on the size of the store and the build-out requirements of the location, the initial cost of a franchise is $180,000 to $318,000.
“Jen’s been fantastic and brings with her a great background with a solid grasp of business fundamentals,” Derse said. “She’s exceeded our expectations as a first-year and second-year Learning Express owner.”
So why did the consultant to airlines decide on a toy store in the first place?
“I felt there was a need for a good one in our community,” she said. “And one that wasn’t 30 minutes or 40 minutes away.”
She credits her long hours at a high level of consulting to big businesses as the training she needed to set herself up in a new industry and be successful at it.
The Learning Express store’s profits have already reached a level that replaced her high six-figure salary at Accenture.
Her husband pinch-hits as the store’s handyman, and her 14-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son are helpers.
Rewarding moments come often. One was when her son overheard a customer say she needed help to find a gift for a 7-year-old. “He piped up, ‘I’m 7!’ and made the sale,” Kaplinsky said.
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