Changing the Game: CEO’s Digital Mindset Proved To Be A Winning Strategy For Mastermind Toys
Mastermind Toys CEO Sarah Jordan is pictured with popular items featured in their Baby Play Guide.
It’s a job most kids dream about, but when Sarah Jordan took over as CEO for Mastermind Toys, she didn’t come to play – she came to redefine the toy industry for a digital age.
Before joining Mastermind Toys in 2020, mere months before the global pandemic hit –Jordan’s career included time in financial services, management consulting and the retail sector. An engineer with an MBA, Jordan developed a track record for transforming a company’s success by tapping into their customer and employee experiences and creating successful omnichannel offerings.
This expertise served her well when she took on this role. While Mastermind Toys had certainly prioritized the customer experience at every juncture in their 38-year history, nothing could have prepared them for the rapid acceleration of the digital economy – a necessity born out of pandemic-related restrictions and the crippling effect it had on Canadian retailers.
“When I joined in January 2020, Mastermind Toys had a world-class curation model on how to bring the best toys, books, puzzles and games to life in our stores, but we had not modernized to truly be a digital and omnichannel retailer. And then the pandemic hit and there was an opportunity to reimagine the future for Mastermind Toys—and for retail,” Jordan explained.
“We were one of the first retailers to temporarily close our doors. At the time, our digital offerings severely lagged the industry—we had no contactless or curbside options—and less than five per cent of our sales were through digital channels while the rest of the toy industry was around 25 per cent. This was a defining moment where there was a clear opportunity to accelerate our existing plans to transform our brand.”
Transform quickly they did. Now, two years later, the company has experienced sustained triple-digit growth through their online platforms, powered by a website that optimizes the customer experience through AI technology. Their strategy and success have won them accolades from their peers, winning the “Most Innovative Retailer of the Year” award by the Toy and Game International Excellence Award in 2020 and most recently, their best-in-class omnichannel strategy won them a Retail Council of Canada Excellence in Retail award in 2021.
“We’ve become so much more than a bricks-and-mortar toy store. We’ve moved from a product-obsessed to a customer-obsessed retailer,” she said, noting that it was a shift in thinking that opened the door for innovation across every aspect of the business. “We’re reimagining the ways we meet our customers where, when and how they want — whether they’re visiting us in-store, at curbside or online.”
The first thing the company did to transform their digital strategy was rethink how they approached digital altogether, both in terms of the ecosystem needed to connect the digital meets physical experience and the in-store culture of their employees, known as “play experts.”
In the past, the company focused heavily on the in-person experience because their play experts, free in-store gift wrapping, and toy demos were key points of difference that weren’t easily replicated online.
But Jordan challenged that thinking by setting a new standard for the website and accompanying digital channels.
“There’s gold at the intersection of digital and physical,” she said. “I’m proud of how we’ve inspired our play experts to become digital ambassadors. Our mission wasn’t just to create a website, but to create a digital adventure that gives customers the same wonder and delight they experience around every corner of our stores coast-to-coast.”
That digital experience now includes specialty boutiques and expanded toy catalogues known as Play Guides, as well as a gift-finder tool, wish list capabilities, a content hub called “The Playground” and social media content with a shoppable Instagram account.
Online they are able to quickly react in real time to current events. For example, during a snowstorm this past winter which saw schools shut down across Ontario, the company quickly changed their homepage to feature “snow day” ideas and products.
A Woo-hoo! HQ desk in a Mastermind Toys store that serves as a dedicated spot
for orders placed online for curbside or in-store pick-up.
Jordan makes it clear, the team prides itself on being the trendsetters in toys and their plans to innovate aren’t over yet, especially with a winning omnichannel strategy in place.
“When you’re truly an omnichannel business, all channels can win,” Jordan said.
A big part of that success has been ensuring the payments process is as seamless and convenient online as it is in store.
Jordan said having PayPal as an option for customers gave them the exact experience they were hoping for.
“As Canada’s authority on play, we want to work with partners who are the authorities in their own playing field. As we build our digital channels, we need partners who are just as customer-obsessed as we are in order to build the same level of trust and loyalty online as Canadians have with us in store,” she said.
“Since we've launched our new digital ecosystems, PayPal is our highest accelerated payment method. We pride ourselves on being frictionless and convenient, and so we look at partners who support us on delivering those experiences. PayPal is there, offering speed, trust and convenience.”
Jordan said the company will continue to build on that payments functionality and invest in solutions that successfully intersect both online and in-store experiences.
They will also continue to invest in collecting customer insights and feedback, a process that also underwent a digital transformation. Each employee has access to the “Nudge” app and is invited to answer questions each week about some of the things they are hearing from customers either in store or during curbside pick-up. Jordan credits the adoption of Nudge across their 68 stores coast-to-coast with their team’s ability to identify trends in toys first and act quickly both online and in-store.
“What I find most exciting about the toy industry is how trend-based it is. We are lucky to have hundreds of trend spotters that fuel our innovation and discover new ways of play through our customers. We want to be a step ahead of what our customers are looking for,” Jordan said.
Early last year, this paid off when lots of customers were inquiring about fidget toys to help their children who were stuck staring at screens all day as part of remote learning.
“We were one of the first retailers in Canada and in the world to launch a massive fidget toy campaign which explained the benefits of fidget play,” she said. “Everything we do is rooted in development. It’s not just about having the hottest toys in the market, it’s about having toys that are beneficial to a child’s growth.”
The feedback tool also helped when the company launched Mastermind Toys Baby in the summer of last year. Through Nudge, store employees provided insights into the positive responses they were receiving from this new approach to baby and infant play. This led to the retailer launching their first-ever Baby Play Guide in February.
Leading a company through a brand and digital transformation at the height of a pandemic has been challenging but invigorating, Jordan says.
“This has been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Jordan said as she reflected on the last two years and coming on as CEO. “I joined Mastermind Toys as a 38-year-old CEO, never having held an executive position in retail. And for me it was really important to bring out the best in all levels of the organization as part of the team. I see my role as being the chief communicator, but also the chief cheerleader. I want to inspire our people to be at their best all the time, encourage feedback and insight and lead the way in retail innovation.
“We’re bold and scrappy play experts who have the courage to innovate and are unafraid to explore something new,” she continued. “That mindset of innovation is embedded throughout the entire organization and it has brought us to where we are today, solidly as Canada's authority on play. We're excited to deliver new innovations that offer wonder and delight for our customers, with more categories, more play guides, and more partnerships as we think about 2022 and beyond.”
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