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A Chicago Entrepreneur Wants to Dominate the World of Children’s Retail.

A Chicago Entrepreneur Wants to Dominate the World of Children’s Retail.

As the recession has taken a number of established store chains off the U.S. retail landscape, the remaining gap has created an opportunity for entrepreneurial new businesses to come in and take their place. One potential future market leader will soon open its first store in Deerfield, Ill., where venture capitalist Shane Christensen and former Walmart executive Bill Colaianni are working on the pilot location for WONDER!, a retail concept that blends Costco and Cabela’s—for children.

Scheduled to open later this year, WONDER! will be a 135,000-square-foot store that will sell everything parents need for children from birth up to seven years of age, from strollers to toys to clothes to furniture, in a variety of price points.

In order to create a convenient and pleasant shopping experience, WONDER! will also contain a 21,000-square-foot indoor park built on a topographical model, a restaurant that will focus on healthy, high quality food, a coffee bar for the parents and a bakery. WONDER!’s founders anticipate that in the future, they might add other services to the property, ranging from a salon offering hair cuts for kids to a beauty shop for the moms.

Going forward, Christensen and Colaianni’s short-term plan includes the opening of 19 stores within a five-year period, starting with locations in the Chicago area and eventually growing to up to 200 locations nationally. The retailer will be looking for big-box spaces larger than 100,000 square feet in areas with high-end demographics similar to Costco’s.

Christensen says he first came up with the idea for WONDER! after watching his wife schlep from one store to another with two small children in tow in order to take care of the toddlers’ everyday needs. The offerings often fell into either of the two categories—high quality, but super expensive or cheap, but limited, he notes.

And the shopping experience itself left something to be desired as the staff in specialized big-box children’s stores treated the customers with indifference. That’s when Christensen began to do research on experience-centered chains like Bass Pro Shops and Whole Foods and contacted Colaianni, then chief marketing and merchandising officer with Walmart Central America, about helping him develop a new retail concept. Colaianni eventually left Walmart to become WONDER!’s president and CEO.

“Out of any retail environment, if there is any that should be completely about passion and creativity and experience, it should be the children’s [store],” Christensen says. “What I saw was a tremendous white space in a maturing industry—I think the big players have survived due to scarcity of competition rather than quality of offering and we intend to change that. Our intent is to change the course of children’s retail, to be a category killer and really knock this industry out of sight.”

Christensen and Colaianni believe they are entering a sector that is inherently recession-proof. Christensen notes that WONDER!’s core focus will be on children under five and the process of figuring out what children in that category need is highly predictable. In fact, in the past few years a number of specialty retailers, including Aeropostale, American Eagle Outfitters and Forever 21, have launched children’s concepts that seem to be experiencing appreciable levels of success, says Kelly Tackett, senior consultant with Kantar Retail, a Columbus, Ohio-based retail consulting firm.

“There is definitely increasing competition in that space and I think the one-stop shop aspect of the new concept could be very appealing,” Tackett adds. “Children are hard on things, so there is a question of whether parents will be willing to pay for that, but I think we are increasingly moving to a retail environment where experience is key.”

Pending permit approval from the village of Deerfield, construction on the first WONDER! store will begin this summer, with its opening scheduled for late fall of 2010. Sears Holdings will be its first landlord and Gensler is serving as the architect for the space.

—Elaine Misonzhnik

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