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Learning Express to Close This Month

Hillsborough toy store sites Internet sales and economy among reasons the shop will close.

After nine years in Hillsborough, will shut its doors Jan. 31, another victim of declining sales and the economic downturn.

“Business is down 50 percent,” Owner Rick Grossman said. “It’s the economy. Internet sales too. Automatically, people save 7 percent with the lack of sales tax. Government officials have been silent on that.

“I can’t fault people for wanting to save money, and, in this economy, people have needed to save their money,” he added. “People are out of work. They can’t spend as much.”

Like many retailers, Learning Express has seen costs rise at the same time as its sales dropped, and an increase in competition from Target, Barnes and Noble and other stores. Still, Grossman avoided raising prices at his Route 206 store.

“I’ve swallowed that,” he said. “I have not raised prices. I’ve actually lowered prices.”

Kids’ shifting tastes, and move from games, toys and other traditional pastimes, further hurt the retailer, he said. Instead of dolls, action figures, science kits and other items toy stores typically sell, children want electronic entertainment—something the store does not sell.

“We also have the issues of changing taste,” Grossman said. “Young kids want iPods and iPads instead of toys.

Grossman opened the business after spending several years in the corporate world and in other professions. His Learning Express franchise fulfilled his need to be creative, while the Hillsborough location met his desire to work near his Bridgewater home.

“It just seemed to meet a lot of needs,” he said. “It wasn’t just a business that made money. It gave joy. It didn’t seem to take advantage. It allowed me to give back.

“I’m a little on the quirky side and it allowed me to bring out my personality and not have to wear a tie,” he added.”

When sales dropped, Grossman tried to increase sales through coupons, marketing, events, appeals to customer loyalty and small business shopping—but none took off, he said. Then, he began to investigate selling the store, moving it or trying to negotiate lower rent with his landlord. Those options also left him empty-handed.

“I looked at everything, including bankruptcy,” he said. “I realized bankruptcy would only mean I would be living out of my car. Closing was the only option I could get. It’s a sad thing.”

The store reflected its customers—and Grossman’s—personality, often stocking items residents could not find in other shops, he said. The interactive and infusion of the local color are among the parts of his job he’ll miss most.

“You could really tell everything in the store from the personality of the people here,” Grossman said. “We kept the products that were different. We knew our customers. It was very personal.”

Though he only announced the closing last week, he’s seen an influx of his regular customers, many who can’t believe the favorite store will close.

“It’s a time of very mixed feelings,” he said. “It’s alleviating a great weight off my shoulders. At the same time, it’s very, very sad.

“It’s like the Joni Mitchell lyric,” he added. “ ‘You don’t know what you got till it’s gone.’”

Laura Madsen January 03, 2012 at 07:31 PM
Learning Express will be missed!
Tye Campbell January 03, 2012 at 08:59 PM
Learning Express is a great store and I am saddened to see it leave. Thank you, Rick, for blessing us with your store for all these years. It's a pity to see how some of these "tastes" change over the years, and they are not always for the better.
chris January 03, 2012 at 09:39 PM
sorry to see them go. a store with knowledgeable employees that had a true willingness to help.
Jim Minadeo January 03, 2012 at 10:30 PM
Is one of the problems that there are Learning Express stores in Branchburg and Princeton? It would seem that three stores within the same area could be a problem? I would blame the HQ on that. Never should have let that happen. It is not like a Dunkin Donut in every town. Sorry to see him go.
Laura Madsen January 03, 2012 at 10:39 PM
I completely agree, Tye!
NKS January 04, 2012 at 12:25 PM
Learning Express has been our "go-to" store for gifts that encourage kids creativity and thinking skills since my children were young. The staff is always top-notch: friendly, knowledgeable and willing to go the extra mile for a customer. Rick has been a HUGE supporter of community fundraisers and an advocate for small business. I wish him all the best on his next adventure!
J. Alecci January 04, 2012 at 03:24 PM
So sorry to see Learning Express leaving Hillsborough. I've shopped there since they opened. For parties my children were invited to and then for nieces and nephews. Not only was it a wonderful store with knowledgeable staff, it's owner Rick, was an asset to this community for all the support he gave to the Town of Hillsborough.
Tracie W. January 04, 2012 at 05:03 PM
Learning Express is a great store. I'm sorry to see it go. I know my daughter and I will greatly miss this store and the lifesaver it has been for birthday party gifts.
Sly January 05, 2012 at 02:16 PM
Rick owned the Branchburg store, too, I believe. That closed last year some time. The Princeton store is a hike when you need a present in a pinch. But it may profit from this one closing.
Laura Madsen January 05, 2012 at 02:36 PM
Princeton is a hike. Learning Express was always our "go-to" store for birthday party gifts. My daughter was also upset to find out that they are closing.

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