Q&A with Experiential Retail Entrepreneur Ben Kaufman
Part of the Future of StoryTelling 2020 Summit Speaker Series
Ben Kaufman is the founder and CEO of CAMP, a national retail chain of family experience stores launched in 2018 that is reinventing retail as an immersive experience. Prior to founding CAMP, Ben was the Chief Marketing Officer at BuzzFeed, where he oversaw the company’s growing commerce division and marketing team. Ben also founded Apple accessory company Mophie and Quirky, an invention platform that connects inventors with companies. Throughout his career, Ben has been obsessed with speeding up design, building things, and storytelling. He is currently obsessed with his growing family and creating enriching retail experiences for families just like his.
Can you give a brief overview of what you do?
I’m the cofounder and CEO of Camp, a retail chain that builds experience stores where families can spend time together. They are indoor play spaces that have rotating themes along with merchandise that coincides with those themes.
You’ve done a number of cool and different things in the past few years. Talk a little bit about your journey so far.
Directly prior to Camp, I was the CMO of Buzzfeed. That’s probably the most straightforward thing I’ve ever done in my life. Directly before that, I ran an invention company called Quirky, which was a system where people could submit product ideas to a website, and we commercialized a brand new product every single week. Prior to that, I started an Apple accessory company called Mophie that built things like the Mophie juice pack.
So you have your finger on the pulse! Can you talk more about the family experience-retail hybrid at Camp? What does that mean and what does it look like?
What we try and do is weave into a family schedule. We do this in a few ways. Number one is we have a store that’s very heavily programmed. We have events like toddler yoga, date night drop-off, where you can drop your kid off at 6:00 and pick them up at 9:00, music classes, magic, et cetera. That’s one bucket of things. The second bucket is that we have amazing products you probably won’t find at other retail stores.
But the third part, what really makes Camp special, is our rotating themes. About 80 percent of our store completely changes every quarter. We tell a story in that space, and that story is merchandised with product. But it is also an amazing interactive play space with hidden slides and discos and puzzles and so on and so forth. Our themes could be anything from Cooking Camp, which is the world of food, from farm all the way to restaurant; Travel Camp, which is a trip around the world; Base Camp, which is a nostalgic New England summer camp; and so on.
And for what ages?
In terms of ages, my joke is that we serve children from two to TikTok, so from the time they can walk and talk to the time they get a phone.
This trend toward experiential shopping is really taking hold. Why do you think that is? What are consumers looking for?
The simplest way to say it is that we need to give people a reason to leave the house. When you’re a customer and you know what you want to buy, there’s lots of friction freeways of going and buying that online. So the role of retail has to be a destination, a thing to do, an activity. And what we’ve done is we’ve merged the two. We have the utility of shopping in our store, but we’re also something to do, something to fill your calendar, something to entertain. I think that’s where retail needs to be headed in the future.
Do you find people head out purely for the experience and incidentally buy things? Can you describe that kind of interface between experience and product?
I think that is probably a safe assumption. People are coming to Camp for the experience of Camp, and they happen to find some cool things along the way. I think very rarely do they come to Camp and say, “Okay, I have to buy a Lego set.” If they know they want a Lego set, there are lots of friction freeways for them to buy a Lego set.
How do you come up with these story ideas for your themes?
It’s a combination of things. Sometimes there are themes that we’re just dying to go and make, and stories that we want to tell. And then another way is we have a lot of great brand partners that want to tell their story. So usually it’s either a brand-led story or an editorially-led story by our internal team.
What’s been your favorite or most surprising and delightful theme or story that you think you’ve covered so far?
My favorite thing is just seeing these kids come back in and ask for specific members of our staff. When they come in and they ask for Counselor Dan the Melon Man, or they come in and they want to see Sarah, that makes me feel like we’ve built a community and that there’s such high frequency that people wind up knowing our counselors, and our counselors feel rewarded for it.
Are you finding that families are particularly hungry for a family-friendly environment, or do you think this is a model that you could see yourself branching out from and moving into different demographics?
I mean, I kind of see it as all one thing. Camp is Camp, and we program different parts of the day to hit different demographics. If it’s a weekday morning, we’re speaking to toddlers who aren’t in school yet. If it’s a Thursday night, we might be speaking to young professionals and do karaoke. We feel like we can program out Camp and the different parts of the day to hit different customer needs and customer opportunities.
So how many cities are you in now?
There are three stores in New York City, one in Dallas, and one in South Norwalk, Connecticut.
How often are families visiting? Is it a weekly thing or is it more occasional?
It’s frequent. It could be as much as several times a week that these families come in. I’d say, on average, you’re coming once a week, once every other week. But the thing I love about Camp is it’s there to be used as a public utility. It’s there to be used. And if you want to go to Camp every day, that’s fine. If you want to come twice a year as a special thing, that’s also fine. We’re there to serve the family.
And do customers pay for the experiences?
It’s totally free to come to Camp, but there are things you could pay to do in Camp. But you could still access the entire store and have fun without paying.
Do you see this branching out into any other forms of storytelling beyond retail?
Yeah. I think there’s media opportunities with Camp. I can’t say it’s the top of the list of things we’re pursuing, but we feel like we are building an audience through our stores. And once you have an audience, introducing characters and stories and IP that could then be later merchandised feels like a pretty standard procedure. But we need more stores first before that becomes interesting.
How about schools? Is there an educational opportunity as well?
That would probably be a bigger reach for us. We want to be like this amazing place where you have fun. And sure, there’s ways to weave education into fun, we do that in our stores, but we do want to be a play-first project.
What are you most looking forward to as far as participating and presenting at FoST?
It just kind of speaks to me in the sense that what we try and do through our retail environment is to tell story, and it will be cool to be in an environment where that’s kind of the focus of everyone’s work. So maybe we can come up with a new campaign together.