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Wednesday, February 15 2012 00:00

Rock Father Adventure: Shopping in a world of WONDER!

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Note: Just five days after posting this article, WONDER! abruptly closed without warning. Read my follow-up post here.

Last Monday, after a family trip to the Doctor for an ultrasound (which revealed our forthcoming ''new release'' to be a girl), my wife and daughter and I made a stop in Deerfield, Illinois to check out WONDER! - an ambitious new shopping destination geared toward children and families. While shopping might be the initial draw, it's the entertainment and service aspects of the store where WONDER! really goes above and beyond what one would expect in a children's retail emporium.

Located within the former shell of SEARS' mostly-failed THE GREAT INDOORS (of which a whopping nine still exist), the 135,000 sq. ft. store is a bright, spacious, and incredibly-inviting environment for little shoppers and their parents. WONDER! is a triple-threat of retail, entertainment, and education - placing a large children's play area toward the back of the store where multi-purpose rooms also exist to hold classes and private parties. 

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wonder2 IMG 6875From the moment we entered the store, our little one was off to the races with a tot-sized green shopping cart that she immediately commandeered and steered deep within the heart of the store - even before the friendly greeter at the entrance could finish welcoming us into WONDER! 

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The layout is expansive, the first thing you really notice is how much wide-open space exists. On the right side of the store is the hardlines area, packed with toys, household essentials, and pretty much anything you'd need for a child birth-7+. Diapers were on-sale "Buy Two Get One Free," so we picked up a trio of assorted HUGGIES PULL-UPS. We also purchased a MY CARRY POTTY in pink ($30), which is an innovative portable training potty that we thought would be extremely helpful in our travels, since we're in potty-training stage right now.

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I was exceptionally impressed at the vast assortment of infant items from bottles to carriers, and beyond. The bath department was also pretty exciting - so much that I almost bought some things we didn't really need. My one area of criticism would be on the diaper assortment and layout. The PULL-UPS we purchased were in two separate sections by pack size. Larger packs in a traditional aisle, while smaller packs were in racks along the wall. A brand should be stocked together, period. Additionally, larger boxes should be made available (think "club pack" size), and though it's not really conducive for a single-store outlet, offering a "store brand" diaper would be a great option for price-conscious parents. BABIES R US, TARGET, SAMS CLUB, etc - all have private-label diapers.

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The toy department offered a solid assortment of toys and crafts, all priced competitively. As someone with a habit of making mental lists of random items and prices, a quick scan of items from FISHER-PRICE, MELISSA & DOUG, HASBRO, and MATTEL revealed the right prices across the board. The low-profile aisles (layed out like "X's") were a nice change from the big box mentality as you can see over the top of the entire department.

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On the left side of the store you'll find clothing, shoes, nursery & bedroom furniture, strollers, bouncers, and more. Leaning more "boutique" with some bigger brands represented, this is where WONDER! trends very upscale. A $27 onesie? You bet. The $3,500 lucite crib that little Ivy Blue Carter is snuggling in? You can get that, too. But, that's not to say that there's not some deals to be had. Sales do exist, and the discounts on certain items were deep - as much as 60% when we were there. One of my personal favorite displays (and one very relevant to this site) was pull-together of rock-inspired fashions from Rowdy Sprout Rocker Tees, Vans (my daughter has two pairs), and some CD's from my friends over at Rockabye Baby! (check my review of their new DEPECHE MODE lullaby set here).

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Where we wound up spending the most time was in the play area. For $10 (full day price, though annual memberships are available), our daughter was allowed free-play in an environment that had tons of activities. There's several of ALEX TOYS' Super Rolling Art Centers set up, a chalk wall, a teeter-totter, THOMAS & FRIENDS and CHUGGINGTON train tables, plenty of coloring pages and crayons, and almost too many additional toys available to recall or name. At one point my little one accidently walked into an in-progress music class that was taking place in one of the multi-purpose rooms. There's just so much going on.

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One of the best features is the indoor "race track," a safe location to take your favorite ride-on toy or trike for a spin. Helmets are available (always make your little one wear one!), and we did some laps on a couple of different vehicles. 

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IMG 6905After our playtime, the little one was pooped out - so much that she decided to plop down on a bedroom display in the furniture department (pictured right).

Overall, our two-hour visit cost found us spending about $70 ($60 for the diapers and potty, $10 for play).

Beyond all the normal activites, WONDER! offers special events on a near-daily basis. Classes, crafts - even concerts by the likes of RALPH'S WORLD and THE BOOGERS! Full details on dates and pricing can be found here.

WONDER! is definitely our new favorite store, and one that I heartily recommend that everyone in the Chicago area check out if you can.

However...

My retail executive past (when the "shirt & tie" look was the norm, and before I started rockin' an eight-inch goatee) has me raising a few questions on the sustainability of WONDER!, starting with letting people know that it exists. Having opened prior to the holidays, I didn't find out about the store until I stumbled upon it by accident on Facebook last month. In fact, I'd actually driven by it before that (spotted from the highway) and said "Hey, something finally went into the old Great Indoors...," but there wasn't (nor is there now) an indication from the exterior as to what WONDER! is. Looking up the history of the WONDER! project after the fact, I see that they've had some coverage in the local papers and in CHICAGO Magazine (I used to subscribe, but not anymore), but those aren't necessarily the best locations to capture the attention of on-the-go parents. They've got a solid website and social media presence, but the locals need to know that the store is there.

The other thing that strikes me is the amount of empty space vs. how much is being shelled out per-square-foot for retail space. Being in a long-empty location, I'd hope that Shane Christensen (the local behind the operation) scored a good deal. A Tribune article states that "the business plan calls for 19 more stores to open within five years," so maybe they can pull a HOBBY LOBBY and snatch up some cheap leases in already-empty locations. While spacious is nice, I think that WONDER! could do well in a streamlined form in a smaller footprint. You only need to look a few years into the not-so-distant past to recall a time when stores like FAO SCHWARZ had some beautiful and well-designed locations - two of which were in Chicago and Old Orchard - and managed to nearly destroy themselves by allowing unnecessary expansion. FAO (now owned by TOYS R US) once had over 40 stand-alone stores... today they have just one.  I'm also hoping that whoever is doing buying/planning on the toy dept. side of things keeps the assortment fresh (Toy Fair is happening right now in NYC) as that stuff will pull the kids more than clothes and essentials. 

Since I've already moved from an "Adventure" post into "Retail Industry Trade" territory, I'll just leave those thoughts as they stand - always looking ahead with cautious optimism.

Bottom line from The Rock Father™: WONDER! is a store that I really hope is around for a long time to come. There really isn't anything else like it.

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WONDER!
250 S. Waukegan Road
Deerfield, IL 60015
224.330.6400
http://www.shopwonder.com
 

James Zahn

James Zahn is best-known as The Rock Father™, a media personality, commentator, adventurer and raconteur. He is the Owner, Publisher, and Editor-in-Chief of THE ROCK FATHER™ Magazine. In January, 2019, after nearly a decade of publishing The Rock Father™ Magazine, he joined Adventure Media and Events as Senior Editor of The Toy Book—the leading trade publication for the toy industry since 1984, as well as The Pop Insider — a destination for all things pop culture, and The Toy Insider — the leading consumer guide for toys and games. He is also editor of The Toy Report, a weekly newsletter published by The Toy Book each Thursday. Zahn has over 27 years of experience in the entertainment, retail and publishing industries.

He regularly serves as a Brand Ambassador and spokesperson for several Globally-recognized pop culture and lifestyle brands in addition to consulting for a number of toy manufacturers. 

Creatively, James has directed/edited music videos, lyric videos, and album trailers for bands such as FEAR FACTORY, has appeared as an actor in feature films and commercials, written comic books, and performed in bands. He currently serves as an artist manager and video director for PRODUCT OF HATE, whose debut album was released by Napalm Records in 2016, distributed by ADA/Warner Music in the U.S. with Universal Music handling global. A new album has been completed and is set for release this year.

Zahn and/or his work have been featured in/on CNN, NBC, ABC, WGN, CBS, GCTN, G4, The Chicago Tribune, Forbes, MarketWatch, Reuters, BusinessWire, Fangoria, Starlog and more. He's appeared as a music expert on CNN's AC360 alongside Anderson Cooper, and has been interviewed by Larry King. In the past he served as a writer for the Netflix Stream Team,  Fandango Family and PBS KIDS, penned articles for Sprout and PopSugar, and was a contributor to Chicago Parent.

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