It’s hard not to be caught up in the enthusiasm of Planet Kids’ owner, Pam Watson, as she talks about her Vancouver Island toy stores. At a time when rumours of a slowing economy are making many other independents duck for cover, Pam is bucking the trend, opening a third Planet Kids store, just this past July.
The 43-year-old retailer is confident the latest storefront, located in a mall on the outskirts of Courtenay, will be just as successful as her first two — an earlier one in Courtenay’s prime, downtown shopping district and a flagship store in nearby Comox.
While Pam acknowledges that long hours and hard work are the bedrocks of retailing, she also adds that the real key to her success is pretty simple. “I’ve an amazing team of people that work for me and I treat my customers well.” Product mix and selection may differ according to each store’s unique clientele, but keeping customers happy is the common denominator at all three stores, she explains. That’s certainly the case at Pam’s flagship store, where she caters to a regular customer base of 2,000-plus families.
Before launching that first Planet Kids store in 2007, Pam operated a kids’ new and used clothing store in her then hometown of Parksville for just over a decade. When she was offered the opportunity to take-over Bears & Balloons, a long-established and similar consignment business in Comox — a city of 12,000 people and part of a regional triangle serving a population of 70,000 — she jumped at the chance.
The 2,000 square-foot Bears & Balloons store was located on the city’s main street, next door to the office of a popular pediatrician and not far from Comox’s active military base and a top-notch hospital. It had been a beloved destination for the area’s budget-conscious moms for over 20 years. Mindful of its reputation and the abundance of goodwill at stake, Pam nonetheless decided to take the store in a different direction — changing the balance and focus to new, quality toy lines like Manhattan Toy, Ganz, Playmobil, Schleich and Melissa & Doug. Store shelves were suddenly lined with everything from science kits and plush to bouncy balls and books. It was a true test in keeping customers happy and Pam would pass with flying colours.
Dropping the Bears & Balloons name, Pam instead chose Planet Kids, a title she felt not only reflected the new product focus, but also incorporated the kids’ clothing/equipment consignment merchandise, which she maintained — much to the delight of local mothers. Situated mid-shop in a place of prominence, the consignment area was an important piece of store real estate that accounted — and still does — for significant traffic.
Regular customers soon discovered that while ownership and the store-name may have changed, the familiar and comfortable environment hadn’t. In the last five years, Pam has continued to build on the store’s reputation for service, ensuring that everyone who comes through the door receives a warm welcome, knowledgeable assistance or, if they prefer, just a relaxed opportunity to browse. Pam and staff let customers know their business is appreciated in a variety of ways.
Moms who come to shop for toys or consignment goods with kids in tow are invited to leave their offspring in Planet Kids’ play area. The bright, 80-square-foot space sports a ceiling festooned with plush toys and is filled with chunky puzzles, a Melissa & Doug kitchen playset and large Schleich dinosaur figurines. Children are kept safely entertained until parents have finished shopping. (The play area also hosts a regular, twice-a-week story-time, attracting anywhere from one to 12 youngsters and accompanying caregivers.) Nearby, a collection of comfortable patio-style furniture gives tired moms a place to rest and enjoy coffee. And a bathroom, set up with a change-table to accommodate babies’ needs, is also available.
While young parents and families account for much of Planet Kids’ regular client base, Pam flags grandparents as a growing and important segment, these days. At Planet Kids, visiting seniors receive some royal treatment that includes one-on-one service and guidance on their purchasing decisions — all while they sit in comfortable chairs.
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