After 25 years as an Accenture consultant to airlines, a retailer flourishes
People spend years, lifetimes in retail and can’t do what retail newbie Jennifer Hayman Kaplinsky is doing this weekend in the stores of Highland Village.
She opens her second store, a children’s clothing store created by Kaplinsky and called Neon Elephant.
Its first store, a Learning Express franchise, opened on Black Friday in 2020 in the same mall.
“People thought I was crazy, but I’m still in shock at how well we did,” Kaplinsky said. “When COVID started, I needed a plan, and I used it [the pandemic] end one career and start another.
Kaplinsky had what most would consider a great job as the managing director of a large consulting firm in Dallas. The global health crisis coincided with her 25th anniversary as an Accenture consultant to airlines, hotels and casinos, and Kaplinsky saw both as a signal that it was time to do something new.
The move to retail means she can be around her children more and can interact with families who are regular customers, mothers who can only work in the mornings and teenagers who need to play games. college or choir bowling. Primary school needs a donated basket. Girl Scouts sell cookies in front. The mall is going to have a festival, so the store is having t-shirts made.
“I used to travel around the world and didn’t think much about my little bubble here” in Lantana, where her family lives, she said.
She said she was ready for a second store but did not 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 United States and 11 in Texas, including local franchise stores in Plano and Frisco.
It was then that Kaplinsky came up with the idea of a children’s clothing store. The mall had space with vacancies due to the pandemic. It has also had success with existing restaurant owners opening second concepts. The 360,000 square foot neighborhood mall is anchored by Whole Foods Market, Barnes & Noble and an AMC theater.
“We have a good mix of national and local brands, and that community supports local shopping,” said Ginny Tirey, the center’s marketing coordinator.
“Jen said she had an idea that there was a need for good kids clothes, 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 many nearby rooftop developments. A 100-acre horse 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 sellers coming from Dallas showrooms, she said. A crowdsourced branding firm helped come up with the name. It couldn’t seem too young since the store caters to newborns to tweens, Kaplinsky said.
The ‘l’ and ‘e’ in the elephant are prominently featured in the store’s logo as a nod to its Learning Express store around the corner.
Kaplinsky approached Learning Express with a plan. America’s largest toy store franchisor has agreed to provide point-of-sale software and hardware for Neon Elephant and sees it as a pilot. Kaplinsky finances the rest. The clothing store could one day become a new franchise.
Kaplinksy can share the employees of its Learning Express store and the Neon Elephant since they are in the same mall, and it also markets them with a loyalty program. She thinks there might be other Learning Express franchisees 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 has made no formal commitment to launch a new franchise brand. His company sees Neon Elephant as a pilot program that will be tested for two or three years.
“Jen acts as an 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 construction requirements of the location, the initial cost of a franchise is $180,000 to $318,000.
“Jen has been fantastic and brings with her a great background with a solid understanding of business fundamentals,” Derse said. “She exceeded our expectations as a first- and second-year Learning Express owner.”
So why did the airline consultant choose a toy store in the first place?
“I felt there was a need for a voucher 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 big business consulting as the training she needed to settle into and succeed in a new industry.
Earnings from the Learning Express store have already reached a level that has replaced his high six-figure salary at Accenture.
Her husband is the store’s handyman, and her 14-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son are helpers.
Rewarding moments come often. One was when his son overheard a customer say she needed help finding a present for a 7-year-old. “He said, ‘I’m 7!’ and completed the sale,” Kaplinsky said.
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