by Rebecca Carlson and Tina Manzer
The work of noted research scientist Michael W. Davidson in the 1990s illustrates how fun it can be to “play” with a microscope. Dr. Davidson, well known for his contribution to Nobel Prize-honored research, also revealed to us the beauty in a drop of beer and the doodles engineers scribble on computer chips. By toying with magnification, and then figuring out a way to photograph what it revealed, he showed us tiny, amazing worlds that we never would have known existed.
C & A Scientific, based in Manassas, Virginia, and China, understands the fun, but also the learning potential of playing with microscopes. That’s why the company added a children’s product line, called My First Lab, to its menu of supplies and equipment for medical and science professionals. In a recent interview with Matthew Swain, C & A’s director of marketing, we learned more about parents’ expectations in the era of STEM, and how My First Lab is meeting their needs.
edplay: The My First Lab brand has been around for awhile, right?
Matthew Swain: Yes. Since 1998. C & A began five years earlier delivering microscope slides to medical product dealers. The company grew, and added professional, medical-grade microscopes to its line, along with other lab equipment. When parents and schools started contacting us, we introduced My First Lab. We still maintain our presence in the medical market, and we use that expertise for manufacturing professional microscopes to create affordable, high-quality children’s microscopes.
What are parents and teachers asking for?
In my opinion, it’s all about STEM. Parents are looking for high quality products that children can learn from while they’re having fun. In schools, teachers want to help children, no matter their background, foster critical skills for the future. Our microscopes are ideal for students who are on different learning levels, and our prepared specimen slides coincide with grade levels base on student learning.
How do My First Lab microscopes meet the demand?
Well they’re durable, so kids can take them outside and explore. We’re all about hands-on learning; we want kids to engage and interact with microscopes without being afraid to break them. Also, all of our optics are glass, not plastic, with the exclusion of one of our models that was designed for a specific application.
Other children’s microscopes rely on mirrors to reflect light up to the stage where the specimen is for viewing. That’s not us. We have real optical light sources, not mirrors. We rely on LED bulbs for maximum illumination and long-lasting life. We also offer battery-operated and plug-in scopes depending on the application.
Our products put the power of real-life products in kids’ hands. Science is easier to understand when it is hands-on. In addition to building skills in science, using a microscope also helps kids with self-confidence and leadership. It makes them comfortable doing higher-level things.
What are your bestsellers?
Currently it’s our Duo Scope. The two-in-one microscope comes with about 50 science accessories, including prepared slides, blank slides that kids can set up themselves, and some little experiments they can do.
For a younger age group, our Duo Scope Starter Kit sells well. It comes with 40 different science accessories and a slightly lower price point.
Our Smartphone Inspector is popular, too. It clips onto mobile phones and tablets to turn them into really powerful microscopes – it magnifies up to 60 times. It “mobilizes” science. You can literally take it out of your pocket and use it, which makes it really appealing to families on the go.
How do you think My First Lab products will sell this fourth quarter?
Their holiday sales record has been really good in the past. This year, we expect them to be even better based on the expanded focus on STEM products all across the nation. A microscope is a special and unique gift; one that parents and grandparents are happy to give.
How do you monitor MAP?
A couple of years ago, we began taking a more proactive approach to supporting specialty toy stores. We weighed that against an understanding of the needs of consumers and online purchasing. As a result, we intentionally partnered with online distributors and sellers who understand the value, quality and price of our products. After that, monitoring MAP became easier. I must say we get a lot of support from our retailer customers. It’s not uncommon for them to point out prices they see on other websites.
When there is a violation, it’s very short-lived. We have processes in place to get them back up to MAP.
We also support retailers with photos they can use on their websites, in-store signage that we customize for every store, and other resources that support the concept of STEM and sales of My First Lab products.
At what shows do you exhibit? Will we see something new from C & A in 2018?
We do Toy Fair, ASTRA, and multiple other tradeshows across the U.S. each year.
We just debuted a concept for a new product, and we are taking preorders on it now. The STEM Starter Kit includes the Smartphone Inspector, along with 3-D slides of about 15 different specimens, including wool, crystals and insect legs. We know children, teens and adults are addicted to their phones. This kit is just another way to mobilize science, and grasp the connection between playing and learning.