Today we’re kicking off another episode of RETHINK Retail with guest Nikki Kaufman.

Nikki is the Co-Founder and Chief People Officer at CAMP, a self-described Family Experience Company designed to inspire and engage families. CAMP operates five experience-driven toy and learning shops in the United States and has recently launched its new, kid-friendly e-commerce store called Present Shop.

Join us as Nikki Kaufman shares her journey to co-founding CAMP, how the high-touch retailer pivoted during the pandemic with innovative digital experiences, and what’s next for this family-friendly company.

Episode 148 of the RETHINK Retail Podcast was recorded on June 02, 2021

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Hosted by Julia Raymond Hare
Produced by Gabriella Bock
Edited by Trenton Waller
Social Media by Madison Freeland

TRANSCRIPTION

Julia Raymond Hare:
Hi, everyone. Today we’re kicking off another episode of RETHINK Retail with my guest, Nikki Kaufman. Nikki is the co-founder and chief people officer at CAMP. CAMP is a self-described family experience company designed to inspire and engage families. CAMP operates five experience-driven toy and learning shops in the US and has recently launched its new kid-friendly e-commerce store called Present Shop. Welcome to the show, Nikki. It’s so great to have you on today.

Nikki Kaufman:
Thank you. I’m so happy to be here.

Julia Raymond Hare:
Yes, there’s so much buzz about CAMP. It’s so fun watching the videos, makes me want to just go there myself, even as an adult. And I’d like to just start off by having you tell our listeners a little bit about yourself and your professional journey prior to co-founding CAMP.

Nikki Kaufman:
Sure, absolutely. And I’m glad to hear that you want to go to CAMP. We hope you will make it one day-

Julia Raymond Hare:
Oh, my gosh.

Nikki Kaufman:
… to one of our shores.

Julia Raymond Hare:
Totally.

Nikki Kaufman:
Yeah. So prior to founding CAMP, I spent most of my career in the people space, so building and managing and creating high-performance teams and really just, I love and do all things people and culture. My husband, Ben, who is also the co-founder of CAMP, and I actually had a business that we started together prior, in 2009, which was called Quirky. And I spent a bunch of time there building the people practice. And that’s where I learned and honed and decided that that was the way I wanted to spend my career, in the people space. So, after Quirky, I spent some time at a company called Normal, which was another consumer products company that I founded.

Nikki Kaufman:
And then I went on to take a break from starting things. And I went to work at Bridgewater, which is a hedge fund in Westport, Connecticut, but they’re incredibly well-known for their people and culture. And I was so happy for the time I spent there. I was there for two years and I focused on management training, and it was so great to learn from a company that had such incredible people practices.

Nikki Kaufman:
After Bridgewater, I came back to the city and I was the chief people officer at theSkimm, where I focused on digital media, but also, again, in the people space. And shortly thereafter, Ben and I were pregnant with Marty and we had Rocco who at the time was one and a half. And we had a problem that we realized was not unique to us, which was that we wanted to answer the question of, what should we do today? And we realized there wasn’t as much in the city that was fun for us as it was for our children, which is why, when you said you want to go there that makes me so happy because that was part of what we always wanted to do when we created CAMP, which was to make something equally fun for the entire family, where the adults could enjoy and the kids could, too.

Nikki Kaufman:
And Ben and I, having spent our careers in the digital side, in the internet, really, we decided, “Okay, let’s start with the hard stuff. Let’s start with the brick and mortar.” And so we decided to answer the question of what should we do today? with opening our first flagship store, which was CAMP Fifth Avenue. And we opened that in December of 2018, and we grew from there.

Julia Raymond Hare:
That’s amazing. And your journey sounds really like it lined up well for launching CAMP because of your focus on the people side of the business and really developing them, and then also with Skimm. I mean, there’s so much that goes into being a retailer, especially a retailer like yourself, where it’s all about the experience and combining digital with physical. And I will say the one thing, I was watching one of your really well-produced videos and I saw the door, it was a wall that is actually a secret door, and that’s what got me. I was like, “Oh my gosh.” And you had a bunk bed that has a slide at the top and just everything you pretty much dream of when you’re a kid.

Nikki Kaufman:
Yeah, yeah, totally. So, what’s pretty cool and I think magical about our experience is when you walk into a CAMP store, you’re in what we call the Canteen, which gives you sort of like a general store vibe. We have a food and beverage component. You can buy gifts or trinkets. There’s adult stuff. There’s some apparel. There are some grab-and-go items. And then there’s a wall that just looks like a wall that has some products on it and jars on it. And what’s super cool about that, and it’s our poorly kept secret, is that it’s actually a magic door. And so our counselors will ask you to recite some magic or do a special trick or have any sort of fun entry point into CAMP, but you get that magic door open and then you’re sort of transported outside of New York City or outside of the location where the CAMP store is in.

Nikki Kaufman:
And you’re brought back to these really nostalgic, fun, creative memories that you have, and you don’t feel like you’re in New York anymore. And you feel like you’re in this magical wonderland where you can play and chalk and craft and go down the slide and play in the dance hall. And it’s all interactive where there’s stuff at all levels for kids of all ages to play with and to touch and to get messy, to sit down and do an activity with your grownups. And we have folks that are actually returning multiple, multiple times a month, which is incredible.

Julia Raymond Hare:
Super exciting. I don’t think that would ever get old, personally, to see the magic door and go from the Canteen into the different experiences that you guys create. And you said something key, which was the word counselor, which totally made me think of Disney calling their staff cast members, which is always talked about in marketing schools, basically. Did that tie into why you decided to name it CAMP? Were there other names you guys were toying with before you decided on that?

Nikki Kaufman:
So, great question. So, the word counselor came about after we decided to call it CAMP, and I will sort of explain the genesis of the word CAMP. First of all, ironically, Ben and I went to the same summer camp in 1998 and we did not know each other, but we met in 2008 in New York City. But why I share that story and why it’s important to this sort of what we’re creating here is that CAMP is very different for everyone and everyone takes a different experience from it. And we want our experiences, and we have ever since day one, to be suited to all different families who have different interests and diverse backgrounds, and everyone can get something from their experience at CAMP. And we try so hard, and we have, again, since we launched, to make our experiences adaptable and unique to people of all sort of different interests and backgrounds, and I think that’s something that’s so magical and special about what we do offer our families. Everyone has a different experience that they take from our store.

Nikki Kaufman:
We called it CAMP because actually a friend of ours, a friend of our son, thought of the word when we were describing the store over lunch in the summer of 2018. And once he said that, we were like, “Wow, that is perfect.” And the word just evokes a magic and a memory and a nostalgia and frankly, a smile. And so that is why we called it CAMP.

Nikki Kaufman:
And as for counselors, our counselors are everything to us. Something that is so special, and again, this comes back to why I love what I do and why I focus on the people, the people are everything at CAMP. And the people give our families that come to our stores and to our virtual celebrations and to visit us digitally, our counselors give them that unique experience. And when we hire counselors, we don’t hire people from traditional retail. There’s really no requirement for having worked in a store before. But we hire folks who are actors or actresses or performers or artists, and we hire them so that they can be themselves.

Nikki Kaufman:
And so they’re constantly performing while they’re in-store and doing their own sorts of things with our children, and the children that come to our store come back asking for certain counselors. And it was so special, during the pandemic, when we shut down for a couple of months, and when we opened again and the families that came back to our stores came looking for our counselors and they remember them by name. And that is just so special to what we’re creating. So, it’s all really a testament to our counselors that we have in our stores.

Julia Raymond Hare:
That is super sweet to hear. I mean, like you said, it’s a testament and it shows the community that you’re building. And it’s something that I think if someone said, “CAMP is a toy store,” it just wouldn’t be true. I mean, how could you describe CAMP in comparison or in contrast to a traditional toy store?

Nikki Kaufman:
Yeah. So, I think there are parts of CAMP that are toy store and of course we sell toys. We do describe ourselves as a family experience company, and I love that word. It ties back to sort of why we started it, which is we started it to create an experience for your family and something that was equally as fun for us as adults, as it was for our children, where we can come and explore and experience the magic. And yes, sure, maybe we buy something, but oftentimes, and really what we’re seeing lately, is that people come to CAMP for CAMP. And what I mean by that is some of the best products that we sell right now are products that CAMP created.

Nikki Kaufman:
And the best example of that is CAMP makes our own activity and craft kits. It’s something that we started during the pandemic, but we have these pre-kitted arts and crafts sort of boxes where families can pick one from almost 20 or so different… You could paint a smiley face, you could design a bag, you could paint an umbrella, you could make slime, you could make a flower pot. There are so many different things to do, and you can do it in our store with your family, or you can take it home and do it at home with your family at home. And that’s something that’s just doing super well. And again, it’s all through the lens of coming to experience something together. And so, that’s how I would describe it.

Julia Raymond Hare:
Experience things together, and that was a good description. You’re creating something and it’s not just transactional at all. It’s the experience. And these are high-touch experiences. As you said, you hire actors and actresses and people from very creative and artistic backgrounds versus traditional retail because of what you’re trying to cultivate. And you had so much pressure… Because we met at Shoptalk, for those of you listening. So that was a month ago and you said that responding to the lockdowns was crazy because you had just opened… Was it a store that you had recently opened or you had big plans? And you had to definitely pivot like everyone else. But then was that around the same time you created these videos that kids can watch?

Nikki Kaufman:
Yeah, yeah. Totally.

Julia Raymond Hare:
Can you tell us about that?

Nikki Kaufman:
Of course. Yeah, it’s a great question. Thank you for bringing it up, although sometimes hard to relive, but so proud of the team and how we did pivot. So, what’s interesting and the reality is I mentioned, we opened CAMP Fifth Avenue in December of 2018, and that was our flagship. And then by October of 2019, we had opened four more stores, totaling a five-store fleet. And then, you know what happened in the world. About 60 days or so later, it was March 15th of 2020 and all of a sudden everything had to sort of shut down.

Nikki Kaufman:
And what’s really interesting about that, and again, something I’m proud about our team and really our counselors pivoting so quickly, March 15th was my son Marty’s first year birthday. And he was supposed to obviously have his party at CAMP Fifth Avenue, which was canceled because our store was closed. And we were like, “This is not going to be okay for our family nor any other family. Birthdays will not be canceled due to COVID.” And so by March 16th, we had launched a public platform for Zoom celebrations. And since then we’ve celebrated over 50,000 parties over Zoom and we’re just super proud of the product we’ve created.

Nikki Kaufman:
Obviously, now we’ve had a year to perfect it, but we’ve really become the go-to place to have these virtual parties. And what allowed us to do that so quickly is, I’m going to come back to our counselors, is again, the counselors that we had working our store, remember these folks are performers. So despite not having the four walls, they are performing virtually and they’re hosting these parties. And it’s been an incredible testament to their agility and this team’s agility to pivot to the digital.

Nikki Kaufman:
And so, when I mentioned that Ben and I started with the brick and mortar, which was the harder thing, I think we always knew we were going to build the digital side of CAMP, but COVID accelerated that a bit more, probably faster than we needed to, but for us, again, that was almost the world we knew better because our careers had been spent in that. So it was super cool that, as a result of everything in the world, I’m proud to say that 2020 brought on the digital and the media side to supplement our brick-and-mortar business.

Nikki Kaufman:
And I can say now proudly that our five stores are recovering and we actually had an incredible Memorial Day weekend. So, it’s just so great to see people back and families ready to have fun again indoors, obviously safely. And we’ve been able to supplement that in a big way with the digital. And now obviously the e-commerce and the virtual shopping experience that we recently just launched with Present Shop. So, pretty excited about what’s to come for us this year, along with some additional new store openings.

Julia Raymond Hare:
New store openings. You heard it here first. Coming soon. And Nikki, it sounds ridiculous, but I got chills when you said that you had an amazing Memorial Day weekend, because I’m so happy to hear that things are coming back. And it seems like because of your amazing digital presence over the last year, what you’ve created, the online experiences, there’s tons of kids throughout the country now that are probably just can’t wait until CAMP opens near them so they can experience it in person.

Nikki Kaufman:
Yeah, exactly. I think people want to be back more. There was always a need to do stuff with your family. And I think if this year told us anything, it’s that we need that even more so.

Julia Raymond Hare:
Yep. And you mentioned your sons, Marty and Rocco. Are they kind of your focus group when you guys have new ideas for programs?

Nikki Kaufman:
Oh, yeah. And actually the whole CAMP team and their children are our testers. And it proved to be awesome when we were launching the Present Shop, we had a whole bunch of CAMP family children that were early testers of the product, because they’ll give you honest feedback and it’s great.

Julia Raymond Hare:
Oh, good. Were there any things that came out where you’re like, “Okay, they’re definitely gravitating towards more of this type of toy or product versus others?”

Nikki Kaufman:
Oh, absolutely. And they call our buyers all the time asking for specific products in-store. And even early days, I’ll remember when we were thinking about CAMP and launching CAMP, we were talking to children about what they wanted and what they need. And I have nieces who are older. And so we’re just doing our best job to talk to children, but again, also talk to parents because it has to be equally fun for all of us.

Julia Raymond Hare:
Yep, well said. And I think the Present Shop is definitely something I want to talk a little bit deeper with you about. When I watched the video, the promo video, and I saw the giraffe mascot and he was like fading into the background. And you think about kids saying, “The toy stores aren’t around anymore. We all shop from online.” And it’s so true. I mean, that experience was, for a couple of years there, it seemed like almost taken away, with the fall of Toys “R” Us and other big boxers that used to create some of that experience, although nothing is close to what CAMP is presenting, but the shop is so cool because of the concept. Is there anything really like it? I mean, where’d you guys get the idea from that? Was that from talking with parents?

Nikki Kaufman:
I don’t think there’s anything like it and the idea came internally. And it was something we wanted to build and we launched it pretty quickly, considering. And like I said, we built it internally and tested it internally and are so pleased that it’s out into the world now.

Julia Raymond Hare:
And it said that the parents load the card and then kids get essentially tokens. I don’t know if that’s what you’re calling them, but they’re tokens. And then they can spend just like they’re spending money.

Nikki Kaufman:
Yeah, exactly. I think one of the interesting things to note is that much of the internet users are children, but to date, children haven’t been able to shop safely online. And so our platform allows that because what happens at the outset of the transaction is that parents actually set up the experience and they put in the dollar amount that they’re allowing their children to spend. And then as you said, the child sees it sort of as like coins or tokens, and then it becomes like a game where they’re dragging and dropping items that they see that they like that the person that is receiving the gift they think would like. And so they’re really sort of shopping through it in a game and very much, again, it’s like an experience for them.

Nikki Kaufman:
And at the end, I love this part, they get to design their own card, which is awesome. And there’s a huge customizable element to this. And that’s just the start of it. You can see down the road, where we’ll have so many more customizable gifts and other things in the Present Shop, but the card is just a taste of that. And then it comes very quickly in a really super cool box, which the kids can actually, I love this, but you can kind of turn the box upside down and knock out part of it and then like the kids can wear the box on their head like a robot, which I don’t think we’re publicizing, but a lot of kids, ours included, and we’ve seen some posts on the internet where kids have figured out this fun secret about the box. And the card comes custom-made. And the whole experience from start to finish for the kid and the gift receiver is awesome and cohesive.

Julia Raymond Hare:
I was going to say, Nikki, the box looked really amazing in the video where it was getting delivered, just how colorful it was. And it had, I think, a little handle. And it was just really cool. I mean, it seems like every detail you guys have down pat, and you’ve thought it out and nothing is like coming later, right? You guys have totally thought out the whole experience from start to finish from the onset. And the gift guides, I thought that was also really amazing because when you’re a kid, you don’t always know what to get your mom. And if you can just click, “Here’s curated mom gifts,” perfect.

Nikki Kaufman:
Exactly. And I mean, I’m sure there’s so much that will be iterated and improved, but we are happy with the way it packaged together as an initial launch. And my son definitely sleeps with his Present Shop box on his bed. So, there’s that.

Julia Raymond Hare:
I love it. I love it. He is definitely a team player for the CAMP fam. And how is the experience integrated… Because you had a lot of experience, you and your husband, Ben, on the media side as well. So, how are you mirroring some of that or tying it into the physical CAMP store? I mean, are all of the products that you have online also in store or how does that work?

Nikki Kaufman:
Yeah, it’s a great question. So, again, as a result of what happened in the world in 2020, we sort of describe ourselves now as a retail media business, where we believe that the brick and mortar, the retail side, feeds the media side and the media side feed the retail side. And it’s sort of this loop that is, frankly, for me, that’s when you see the most magic, right? When the digital and the media ties into then an experience you see in store.

Nikki Kaufman:
So yes, to answer your question, there is some stuff that you can buy online and also in our store. There is some stuff that is just in store and just online. We are working to make that more uniform and cohesive on both sides over time, and we will. I think the exciting thing, too, for partners that work with CAMP, because a piece of CAMP’s revenue model is that we work with brand partners who are excited by activating the audience that we have, and partners are now excited because they can do that both in-store, in our physical location, but also digitally and through camp.com and through our e-commerce experience and through our virtual celebrations. And so we can actually activate with brands in both ways, which is pretty cool.

Julia Raymond Hare:
That is amazing. And if there are any retailers listening or brands listening that want to contact you about partnerships, how could they do that?

Nikki Kaufman:
Amazing. So you can reach me at any time. I’m nikki@camp.com N-I-K-K-I at C-A-M-P dot com. I do not handle partnerships at CAMP, but I would love to chat with you and if appropriate pass you to the team that does handle our brand partnerships.

Julia Raymond Hare:
Cool, thank you.

Nikki Kaufman:
Thank you.

Julia Raymond Hare:
I’m sure you have people lining up. This is amazing. I wanted to ask, as an entrepreneur and co-founder of CAMP, what has been something that has been really surprising to you in terms of growing it to what it is today from your initial vision?

Nikki Kaufman:
So, I think one of the things that was most surprising early days and continues to surprise us, but also it’s a happy surprise, is the loyalty. We realized very early on that the families that came to CAMP were the families that then came back to CAMP. And we never had numbers to support that until recently, we actually did our first customer survey by a third party, and the numbers were just so impressive. And I’m pleased to share that the surveys actually showed that 60% of the families visit CAMP stores a couple of times a month, which is just insane.

Julia Raymond Hare:
Wow. That’s huge.

Nikki Kaufman:
Yeah. And I think that just shows that we are and we do become a fixture in these communities, which is just so special. So, that was a surprise, but something I hope continues and that we’ve seen continue, even throughout this year.

Nikki Kaufman:
And I don’t think this is a surprise, but I think it continues to impress me with its importance is just the element of people. Right? And so I think that’s why I was so pleased to work with Ben again, is because he is… and really the whole leadership team at CAMP. This is a people focused company. No matter how good the Present Shop is, or no matter how good our physical experiences are, no matter how good the products are that we sell, it truly is all about the people and the culture that we’re creating. And so that continues to be something that we have strived for since day one. And we’ll continue to put at the forefront of our mind, because that is what will drive, we believe, the families coming back and this business to be successful.

Julia Raymond Hare:
Yep, well said. All about the people and then loyalty of your customer base, which is growing rapidly. And Nikki, I wanted to ask you this, because I saw that the experiences in store change. How has that process, how has that been? Is it really tough to get these new creative ideas, or are there too many ideas to even work on them all? I mean, how often is it rotated?

Nikki Kaufman:
Yeah, amazing. So, we haven’t done a theme flip in a little bit of some time just due to traffic picking up and whatnot, but we are actually getting set to do some this year. The way it works, before the pandemic, typically what would happen is behind the magic door, there was a theme and that theme would rotate typically every couple months. So, you would have like travel CAMP and then in three months, travel camp would move from Fifth Avenue to a different CAMP location and Fifth Avenue would get cooking CAMP or another theme. And so these themes would sort of like Tetris themselves around the country and around the different locations.

Nikki Kaufman:
What’s super cool about these themes is that themes, and I guess to answer your question, there’s so many ideas. But themes can be built and created by CAMP solely, but oftentimes what we see is that brand partners actually want to integrate with our themes. And so you might have a section of travel CAMP that’s sponsored by a certain brand, or you might have sports CAMP that’s sponsored by an entire brand. And so brand partners can kind of come in and have sections of the store, cabins inside the camp, or the entire theme.

Nikki Kaufman:
And so oftentimes our themes are developed with our internal creative teams and then in partnerships with our brand partners. And then again, the cool thing about it is you don’t waste the build, right? You build it once, it’s in one store for three months or so. And then it gets flat packed, put on a truck and then you go set it up in a whole nother location. And it’s so cool to see how the different themes manifest themselves in different locations. They fit in different ways, and so you sort of see the experience in a new light. But it’s awesome to see when they travel around the country and make their way to new audiences. So, we’re getting ready for theme flips to be happening soon.

Julia Raymond Hare:
I love it. I just, in my head, I hear, “Put that theme down, flip it and reverse it.” I’m just thinking of that song. But I love how efficient it is and how it’s theatrical. I mean, do you have people come in and actually create and like paint certain signage and things like that, or is most of it pretty manufactured because you have to have it flat-packed and shipped?

Nikki Kaufman:
So, it’s a good question, and it’s a little bit of a combo. Some of it is built on-site and some of it is built externally, but the whole idea of the flip is that we build it so that it can be repurposed and reused in another location. And the cool part about it is, we’ve gotten these theme flips down now to a science where we close the store, the back of the store, for about a day and a half only. And you transform the entire, entire back. You would not believe how different it looks from theme to theme. But it takes us about a day and a half to flip it over, and the whole staff gets involved in the process and we’re training them on the new experience. And all the while, we’re still keeping the Canteen open. So we’re never shut down because of the theme flips, we kind of incorporate that into how the business works.

Julia Raymond Hare:
Wow. That’s so amazing that you structured it that way, so you can still keep the store open on the front while you’re redoing the back.

Nikki Kaufman:
Yeah, exactly.

Julia Raymond Hare:
Amazing, love that. Wow. Really cool. And Nikki, it was great to have you on. I want to talk about, just real quick, your take on the future health of the retail industry. I think the numbers are looking better for retail. People are definitely becoming more positive. I know vaccinations haven’t rolled out completely in all parts of the world, but we’re getting some traction here in the US. What are some things you’re excited about?

Nikki Kaufman:
I mean, I’m excited that people are back and coming in. And we’ve truly believed this since day one before we opened, and I think the pandemic even proved that more. But when people go to a store, they need to go there for a destination and for an experience, right? You’re not just going to go to pick something up because we all know, and I do, too. I buy things I need to just get on Amazon, or I get them delivered to my house. But when you’re going to go to a store, it’s about an experience that you can’t just buy. Right? And so that is what we’re seeking to achieve. And I’m excited to see that other retailers will be offering experiences as well as destinations for families and communities to congregate and have fun. So, I think that’s where retail is going.

Julia Raymond Hare:
Destination and make an experience, for sure. And you said that there were some exciting things in the work at CAMP, and that includes some new store openings.

Nikki Kaufman:
Yes.

Nikki Kaufman:
So there are four others coming, which we will be launching and announcing soon, but excited for new CAMP locations. And there’s a lot of recruiting to do.

Julia Raymond Hare:
A lot of recruiting, I’m sure there’s just a ton of work, but it’s going to be so exciting when it finally launches and just to see the growth really take off after this bumpy last year that everyone experienced. And so, Nikki Kaufman, it was absolutely wonderful to have you on the show, and I hope to have you back again soon.

Nikki Kaufman:
Thank you so much for having me and thank you all for listening. It was so great to be here. We hope to see you at a CAMP store in real life soon. And if you can’t come to a store, we’d love to see you at camp.com and be sure to check out camp.com/present for the latest on the Present Shop.