The past year-and-a-half has no doubt proven to be an incredibly difficult time for most retailers in just about every vertical throughout the industry. The pandemic and its impacts have challenged merchants and other businesses to pivot, at times redefining their service and offering, in order to remain relevant and successful. It’s forced many across the country to reimagine their place in an unstable market amid the instability and uncertainty of a changed and still unsettled landscape. And, it’s put an enormous amount of pressure on departments and teams within organizations to explore and discover new ways of doing things as we collectively await our new ‘normal’. In short, the past 18 months have been a far stretch from fun and games. However, for Mastermind Toys CEO, Sarah Jordan, this period in retail history has served as an opportunity to further strengthen the beloved Canadian brand, elevating it through her passionate and purpose-driven approach to leadership.
“When it comes to successfully leading a team, an individual needs to, among other things, be passionate, bold and authentic,” she says. “And, to be truly effective, they’ve got to be purpose-driven. I’m also a strong advocate for brand storytelling and deeply believe in sharing that story with both employees and customers and showcasing it as a real strength for differentiation. A leader also requires inspiring communications skills, ensuring that the organization’s priorities and focus are clear. And, they’ve got to be able to understand their own strengths in order to build the best team, putting the right people around them. The ability to nurture and develop talent and to truly believe in the team around them is also critical and sets everyone up for success, resulting in an incredible employee experience which, in turn, drives a phenomenal customer experience. And there’s no better place than retail to surprise and delight a customer and create connections with a brand and purpose.”
Jordan, whose rise to retail success has been somewhat unconventional, holds an engineering degree and MBA from Queen’s University and started her professional career in management consulting. She spent a decade at Boston Consulting Group where she worked with Fortune 500 companies on retail and banking customer transformations before joining Scotiabank as its Senior Vice President of Customer Experience and Omnichannel Strategy. She was named CEO of Mastermind Toys – Canada’s biggest specialty toy and children’s book retailer – in January 2020, just months before the onset of pandemic-induced restrictions and lockdowns. Despite the incredibly challenging backdrop to her new role, however, she saw prospects for the brand and a chance to apply her energy and enthusiasm toward realizing them.
“When I took over as CEO of Mastermind Toys, I saw a big opportunity to take this leader in its category to the next level,” she asserts. “To achieve this, I instituted a strategic plan. I set out to declare us as the ‘Authority on Play’ in Canada. We are a purpose-driven brand and deeply believe that ‘Play is Kids’ Work’ and knew that we needed to introduce our brand to more Canadian kids and kids-at-heart. I also wanted to strengthen our channels. We were delivering amazing wonder in our stores, but we were lagging the industry with respect to our web and curbside presence. And so, I really wanted to lead the organization on a digital reinvention and to create wonder for our customers both in-store and online. I also wanted to amplify our differentiators, one of them being our ‘Why Kids Play’ curation model by which we curate our toys, books, puzzles and games based on a child’s development, for each age and stage, with respect to their body, mind and expression. There were opportunities for us to bring this curation to life in more ways by leading in specialty and trends. And, what I’m most proud of is the fact that we’ve been able to drive a cultural transformation around being more purpose- and performance-driven.”
She goes on to explain that, although there hasn’t been a playbook available to her concerning the ways to lead through a global pandemic, it’s been a privilege to be part of a team that’s pulled together to such great effect, navigating through these challenging times to come out stronger. It’s a testament to the resilience and determination of the revered Canadian brand, and an example of the kind of character that’s exuded by a special category of merchants within the industry that continue to push the boundaries of what’s possible. Despite the positivity with which she approaches just about every aspect of her job, however, she suggests that circumstances over the course of the past 18 months have not only influenced the retail environment, but those who lead through it as well.
“I remember, if I reflect on the past year-and-a-half, a real heaviness and weight to the decisions that I made through the pandemic,” she admits. “I knew that I needed to make decisions that ultimately kept our employees and customers safe and realized that this was going to be a period of time that not only reinvented retail, but was one that would also reinvent leadership, serving as a defining moment for many within the industry. In response to the turmoil that was happening, I saw tremendous value in bringing our employees into the conversation about the ways we should respond and best support our customers. I believe in co-creation and seeking input from all levels of the organization to better understand everyone’s concerns, suggestions and feedback. It’s the best way to properly gain a holistic view of the brand and the areas that can be strengthened and improved.”
Leading this type of transformation at such a critical juncture for the brand and industry is ambitious, to say the least. But when considering the fact that Jordan’s appointment as CEO represents the first leadership change in Mastermind Toys’ 37-year history, the move suddenly becomes a very courageous one as well. And the results to this point couldn’t be more impressive. Through the pandemic, the retailer launched its leading curbside promise to deliver product into the trunk of the customer’s car or at curbside, presented in the brand’s signature wrapping paper, within one hour. It launched a brand-new website on a completely new platform, equipped with artificial intelligence-powered customer experiences that bolsters search and functionality for the end-user. And, it also introduced three cultural goals meant to enhance and support employee development and performance.
“We really wanted our employees to feel inspired through the pandemic,” Jordan explains. “Mastermind Toys has always had corporate goals. But I wanted to inject cultural goals as well. So, as the pandemic was unfolding, I asked all of the Mastermind Toys employees, communicating the message through virtual town halls, to be bold and scrappy. If we were going to make it through these challenging times stronger, we needed to innovate and to give our employees inspiration to go for it. We also set a goal to create momentum. Rather than focusing on the twists and turns of the pandemic, we wanted to remain focused on our long-term vision and strategy. Every town hall meeting, we’d celebrate wins big and small, and we’d celebrate failures as well. We introduced the weekly ‘Mastermind Moment’ that is handpicked from our employees’ performances across the nation. And lastly, we wanted to maintain the ingredients that make Mastermind Toys special and to allow our purpose to guide us and shine through during a moment when our customers’ and employees’ lives were being transformed.”
Culmination of goals
The goals that Jordan and her team set out last year were well-received by the entire organization, so well-received, in fact, that they’ve been reinvigorated for 2021. This year, she explains, Mastermind Toys employees have been charged with keeping kids and kids-at-heart central to everything the brand does. They’ve been inspired to win each moment and milestone throughout the year, beyond the brand’s traditional holiday shopping season success, with the addition of its Spring and Back-to-School Play Guides. And, due to the extreme pressures that everyone has been under over the course of the past year-and-a-half, they’ve been encouraged to work together and play together, focusing on being a team. Results of the goals and the overall transformation that Jordan has led for Mastermind Toys have been significant, seeming to culminate in many ways in the launch of its first sub-brand, Mastermind Toys Baby.
“I pride myself on being a deeply customer-obsessed leader,” Jordan affirms. “So, I wanted to understand exactly who the Mastermind Toys customer is today, who we’re serving and who we’re underserving. Mastermind Toy’s’ purpose is to inspire generations of lifelong learners through the power of play. And our sweet spot has always been parents, grandparents and kids aged three to six years old. What we realized was that we were missing an opportunity to support the new parents or grandparents and to speak authentically about our belief that ‘Play is Kids’ Work’. When we transitioned that statement to babies, we recognized that there are a lot of companies who are supporting the new parent with respect to gear, the nursery and bringing the baby home. But no one was addressing the importance of play in order to support their development. And so, we set a goal to become the number one choice for baby play for development.”
To do so, the brand applied its curation model to the development of Mastermind Toys Baby, resulting in a selection of items for baby’s playtime that support five key development skills, including fine motor skills, gross motor skills, cognitive skills, speech and language and social and emotional. The sub-brand is rooted in the company’s origin, founded in 1984 as ‘Canada’s educational store’, and is being introduced during a time that Jordan believes new parents are in most need of support and educational resources. She adds that it’s helped Mastermind Toys broaden its customer-base and to explore in more detail where some of its future opportunities might be with respect to growth.
“Prior to the pandemic, we narrowly described our customer and who we wanted our customer to be,” she says. “Now, we want our customers to be parents, expecting parents, grandparents, educators, gift-givers and kids-at-heart, meaning adults, who are one of the fastest growing segments in toys. We want them to be passionate about celebrating milestone moments to make lasting memories. We want them to be adventurous, lifelong learners who are looking to inspire curiosity in others. And we want them, of course, to look to us as their trusted resource for all things play. To support our customers, we want to own our moments with them by helping to celebrate holidays, reward occasions like good behaviour and grades, celebrate milestones like potty-training and losing a soother. And, we’re also looking to support life transitions, like the introduction of new siblings or kindergarten graduation. The world is better at play. And we want to ensure this by curating world-class assortments and experiences that inspire wonder and foster development.”
Delighting the customer
Always looking forward, discovering new ways by which to serve its community of customers, Jordan is optimistic about the future of retail in Canada and is relishing the opportunity to reignite and intensify everything that’s great about the toy store experience, in particular the Mastermind Toys experience. Brought to life in-store through toy demonstrations, its bold colours, whimsical signage and engaging displays, the Mastermind Toys experience sets the brand apart. And, although much of the brick-and-mortar offering that the brand provides was limited throughout the pandemic, all 68 locations from coast-to-coast are now operating at full capacity. It’s something that Jordan says is the most exciting moment of her journey with the brand thus far.
“The retail industry really sets the pace for innovation, in both big and small ways,” she asserts. “And I’m excited to navigate over the coming months and years toward enhancing the interaction of retail and the creation of those real moments rather than the quick curbside pickup. I was thrilled when our stores started to reopen after the lockdowns to see the kids enter and experience that wonder around every corner. And because we understand that we continue to set the trends, customers are greeted when they come into our stores by a ‘Play Expert’ and guided toward the perfect gift. I’m looking forward to 2022 and beyond to be about understanding and creating new experiences that will delight our customers.”
Amplifying the retail experience
Jordan also expresses anticipation and enthusiasm for the upcoming holiday shopping season and the opportunities to provide customers with the experiences she describes. Her energy and natural acumen for the role she’s currently serving have already reaped dividends for Mastermind Toys. Despite her early achievements, however, the retail leader remains fixed on continuous improvements and enhancements, describing the transformation of the brand as a multi-year journey, and work with a purpose that she’s more than willing to see through to fruition.
“We’re excited and inspired by the impact of our strategic transformation to date. We want to truly be Canada’s ‘Authority on Play’ from coast-to-coast, leading the way in toy trends, retail innovations and experiences in our category. We still want to introduce the Mastermind Toys brand purpose to more Canadians and we see many opportunities to continue to improve our channel offering and customer journeys. We’re just getting started in terms of our digital experiences and how we can provide as much wonder online as we deliver in our stores. From an assortment and curation standpoint, we’ve been known for certain categories with deep roots in educational toys. Many opportunities exist to deepen our offering in those categories and create new ways to surprise and delight customers. We want to ensure that we’re Canada’s year-long destination for all things play. And we want to put the special back into specialty. With a focus on our customer and this amazing Mastermind Toys team, I’m confident that we’ll continue to lead within the industry, amplifying the retail experience.”