by Victoria Ritter
In a day and age where independent toy shops are competing with larger chain retailers and online sales, a small chain of hybrid stores is making its own niche in the market. KidSnips combines services and retail with seven stores across the Chicago area that are part hair salon, part toy store.
“Hopefully, Amazon cannot take over haircuts,” said KidSnips Co-Owner Jillian Gibson with a laugh.
Longtime friends and fellow moms Jill Gordon and Kim Stolze brainstormed the idea for KidSnips in 1996. After some planning and collaborating, they opened their first location in Highland Park in 1997.
“The thought behind it was you would have families, parents and kids in the salon,” Gibson stated. “While the kids are getting a haircut, moms could use that time to get some birthday gifts and pick-up items. And we’re happy to wrap – it’s a one-stop shop.”
Today, KidSnips has locations in Arlington Heights, Lincoln Park, Deerfield, Naperville, Oak Brook, South Barrington and Wilmette. Between 75 and 80 employees – including managers, stylists and receptionists – are spread across the sites.
Growing into toys
While the business’ main focus is the salon, toys line the walls and fill shelves around the stylists’ stations. When KidSnips first started, the retail side wasn’t as large; as local, independent stores have gone out of business, Gibson has observed how more customers come in just to buy toys. “It’s been fascinating to watch it evolve over time,” Gibson said. “To put it in perspective, our business is still 80 percent the hair service side and 20 percent retail.”
The limited space for toys allows the owners to be more selective about what they stock. Gibson estimates the business carries more than 1,500 SKUs. In addition to hair accessories and professional styling products, each store has specific toy sections dedicated to games and puzzles, arts and crafts, general toys and plush.
KidSnip’s target demographic is kids and families buying a treat after their haircut as well as for holidays and children’s birthday parties. Although most of its salon clients are between the ages of 2 and 12, the retail side caters to anyone ages 3 and up. Adults can find items for themselves as they wait, such as 1,000-piece puzzles.
“We carry the best of each category because we’re not a full toy store and we don’t have to fill the entire space,” Gibson said. “We get to pick and choose. Our clients often compliment us on our selection.”
Stolze and Gordon garner ideas about inventory from trade shows; KidSnips attends Toy Fair in New York City, ToyFest in Las Vegas and ASTRA. They also talk with local sales reps and take suggestions from patrons and employees about what items to stock. This way, the stores can keep up with the latest trends.
While Pokémon cards have been a consistent seller since she joined KidSnips, Gibson has seen blind bags – series of collectable toys packaged so that the item inside is only revealed when a customer opens it – and fidget toys gain popularity in recent years. The stores carry major brands including Ty, Toysmith, White Mountain Puzzles, UPD Inc. and UCC alongside lesser-known names.
“We also tend to find interesting items from closeout companies. We’ll find companies that may not be well known; we really try to find good quality products that are low in cost,” Gibson said. “One thing that’s important to us is keeping the cost reasonable for customers.”
KidSnips keeps consumer prices affordable with a unique approach to shipping and receiving. It does not have a central warehouse or receiving location when orders come in, so when they do arrive, they are delivered to one of the seven salons. There, the staff will unpack the product and divide it up for the other store managers and owners to pick up. Managers have an additional opportunity to exchange boxes at the bi-weekly manager meeting.
“We have it down to a science, as efficient as it can go,” Gibson said. “I often joke that I’m as much of a UPS driver as I am the owner of a hair salon because my car is always full of boxes.”
Connected with the community
Gibson credits the company’s longevity to the founders’ personal approach to the business, treating customers and employees like family. Some of Gibson’s clients have been coming to see her since they were infants; now she styles hair for high schoolers, college students and adults who have known her for decades. With good relationships with stylists, customers feel comfortable consulting KidSnips staff about toys and potential purchases.
“Kim and Jill have always made the employees and customers their top priority. As KidSnips grew, that core family feel, open-door policy has also grown,” Gibson said. “It’s more personable. We’re chatting with customers about their lives, their kids, all the things we have in the store and our experiences with a certain product.”
Community engagement is an important part of KidSnips. The salons participate in local festivals, offering to fashion hair into braids and updos and accessorized with glitter and hair color spray. Employees even hand out goodie bags with coupons for the toy store.
KidSnips also gives back to the community, benefitting organizations that support individuals with Down Syndrome, autism and breast cancer, to name a few causes. On a regular basis, the unsold toys in the stores’ discount sections are donated to a children’s charity, school or hospital. “We’ll pick different months and donate a portion of proceeds from our haircuts to a cause. All of our donations go towards children’s organizations,” Gibson said. “We’re always trying to find ways to give back as much as possible.”
New beginnings, same values
Gibson joined the KidSnips team in 1999, shortly after Gordon and Stolze opened their second location in Wilmette. At the time, Gibson was looking for temporary work while the salon she was currently working at was remodeling. “Two months later, once my former salon was remodeled, I had fallen in love with the KidSnips company and its owners,” she said.
Together with fellow Wilmette manager Johanna Aardema, Gibson moved up through management positions, eventually working directly under Gordon and Stolze. In 2017, the founders approached Gibson and Aardema about their eventual retirement and offered to transfer the ownership. Within the next two to three years, Gibson and Aardema will be the sole owners of KidSnips. “They didn’t want to outright sell the company and risk losing the integrity they had built their business on,” Gibson explained. “This was important to us, so Johanna and I transitioned into an ownership position.”
The future looks bright and business is going well for the management team. Although there are hiring gaps left over from the pandemic, Gibson has high hopes that the stores will soon be fully staffed. As an owner, she’s looking forward to implementing more technology, streamlining productions and increasing efficiency.
“One thing that will never change is the core integrity of the company,” Gibson added. “And that is to treat everybody with kindness and respect at all times. We want KidSnips to always be a place that clients and employees look forward to coming to.”