Zany Brainy, Best Buy debut in Maryland


Zany Brainy and Best Buy, two retail chains on East Coast expansion binges, plan to make their first forays into Maryland over the next week when they open new stores in Columbia.

Both retailers will open stores in Snowden Square, the Rouse Co.'s enormously successful regional shopping center off Route 175 and Snowden Square Road.

Best Buy, the nation's No. 3 consumer electronics chain, plans to open its Columbia store tomorrow. It has been expanding rapidly into territories of its chief rival and the No. 1 chain, Richmond, Va.-based Circuit City Stores Inc. Best Buy also plans to open three other stores in Maryland -- Laurel, Gaithersburg and Glen Burnie.

Philadelphia-based and privately-held Zany Brainy, which sells educational toys, electronic learning games, crafts and educational videos and music for children, plans a Nov. 4 opening of its 12,000-square-foot Columbia store. The chain plans to open stores in Rockville and Annapolis in November and is looking at sites in Towson.

Zany Brainy is the second retailer targeting the market for educational toys and games to set up shop in the county this year.

Its key competition in the Howard County market is LearningSmith, a mall-based chain selling similar merchandise. LearningSmith recently opened a store in The Mall in Columbia.

LearningSmith's inventory includes educational toys and software and electronic games for all age groups. Zany Brainy's target market is children 12 years old and under -- hence the store name.

"We wanted a name that captured our educational direction and the element of fun," said David Schlessinger, the company founder.

Zany Brainy has signed a 10-year lease for the store site with the xTC Columbia-based Manekin Corp.

A key feature of the store, which will stock 25,000 items, will be computer stations and other areas which allow children and parents to play with items in stock. Stores also feature a mini-theater for customers to view children-oriented videos in stock, a birthday gift registry service for kids and promotional events such story hours and live concerts.

"They are a really neat concept and have a high promotional appeal," Edward Ely said of the store. He is senior land sales and marketing director with Rouse.

Zany Brainy says all stock items are discounted 10 to 40 percent.

The chain also stocks only items which it considers safe, nontoxic, gender neutral and nonviolent.

That means you won't find some of the big sellers in the children's market today, such as Nintendo, Power Rangers, Teenage Ninja Turtles and Barbie dolls.

"When I founded this store I made a decision that I only wanted us to carry merchandise that served a worthwhile purpose," said Mr. Schlessinger, who founded and later sold the Encore Books chain.

"I felt many parents today don't want to expose their kids to the excessive violence they see pitched in the mass market. This is a store for the discriminating buyer; the parent that wants to see their children expand their imaginations and their creativity."

Mr. Ely, the Rouse executive, expects Zany Brainy to mesh well with Discovery Zone (formerly Leaps & Bounds), an indoor play center filled with play equipment and activities for children which is slated to open in Snowden Square early next year.

The county's demographics were one of the top draws for Zany Brainy, Mr. Schlessinger said.

"Columbia is known for having strong family values and excellent educational standards," he said.

Mr. Ely predicted the store site would show strong sales because of the area's demographics.

"It's a very family oriented franchise and this is a family-driven market," he said.

Howard County has the sixth highest median family income in the nation -- $54,348. It also has a preponderance of families with children. Twenty-eight percent of the county's population is under 19 years old and 8 percent of those are under the age of 5, according to 1990 census data.

Meanwhile, Best Buy, which sells videocassette recorders, compact disc players, tape decks and televisions, likes the area's demographics as well and believes it will give its key area competitor, Circuit City, tough competition.

One way Best Buy attempts to attract customers is by offering some items, such as compact discs, at discount low prices.

Also, the 45,000-square-foot store in Columbia will have about 70 listening kiosks, where shoppers can listen to music selections before buying.

The addition of Zany Brainy, launched in 1991, and Best Buy should further strengthen Snowden Square's appeal for shoppers, said Mr. Ely.

"All of the stores say they are doing really well," he said.

Snowden Square, a 40-acre property, was formerly part of a failed General Electric industrial park. Rouse Co. won rezoning for the land about two years ago and began developing and marketing it as a regional "power center" shopping area.

The goal for the center is to provide Columbia area residents with those shopping services that the company had found consumers were leaving the area to obtain.

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