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Sunday, Nov 23, 2014
Northwest News

Learning Express Toys opens in Citrus Park mall

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CITRUS PARK — When Stefanie and Kris Dunlop moved here 2 1/2 years ago, it was in response to a job offer for Kris, a CPA. But the St. Louis couple with strong business backgrounds also began exploring local franchise opportunities.

“We both are trained in all areas of business; sales, financial side,” said Stefanie. “So when we moved here we knew we wanted to do something that was ours.”

This month, the two 37-year-olds opened Learning Express Toys at Westfield Citrus Park mall.

“Learning Express was definitely the one we had the most passion toward and the most interest,” she said of the nation’s largest educational toy retailer, with 130 stores nationwide.

The 3,450-square-foot store near Macy’s that opened Sept. 18 is stocked floor to ceiling with merchandise focused on learning, Stefanie said.

The new owners recruited their former nanny in St. Louis, Nicole “Koko” Keene, to manage the store, said Stefanie, a mother of two young children with a business degree and marketing experience. “She had expressed an interest in moving here, so we called her and said, ‘We might just have an opportunity, are you still interested?’”

She was. “My background is in early childhood education,” said Keene, 29. “I’ve worked in childcare, I’d been a nanny and worked in preschools.”

“We’re going to have lot of free events here — story times, art events,” Stephanie said. A room is being prepared for those events, as well as for birthday parties and such functions at the store, open seven days a week. Other free benefits include gift wrapping and personalization of purchases.

Initial customer response has been great, especially for Rainbow Loom, a new item sparking the biggest toy craze since Beanie Babies, said Stefanie. The $15.99 Rainbow Loom kit enables children to weave multicolored elastic wrist bands. “It is hot all over the United States,’’ said Stefanie, adding the new store sold about 250 kits in its first several days, and many more bags of additional bands. On Monday, the store launched a Rainbow Loom club for the toy that appeals to both genders, with boys tending to make wrist bands using colors of their favorite sports teams, she said.

gwilkens@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7124

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