By the Christmas selling season of 1999, Wynnewood, Pa.-based Zany Brainy is looking to double its current store count of 52. Since its first store opening in 1991 in suburban Philadelphia, the retailer has gained a multi-state real estate presence spread over a number of shopping center categories.

"We've actually got great flexibility," explains Keith Spurgeon, chairman and chief executive officer for Zany Brainy. "We've got some freestanding stores, some in power centers, neighborhood strips and regional malls with external access. Given the appropriate locale and demographics, Zany Brainy can work within many different formats."

Presently, Zany Brainy's prototype footprint measures 10,500 sq. ft. - enough space to house numerous interactive activities for children of all ages. The store features events such as mini concerts, book signings, product demonstrations and reading clubs. In addition to carrying a 7,000-title book inventory, substantial audio offerings and more than 600 software and CD-ROM titles, the store invites visitors to interact with and immerse themselves in their retail surroundings, Spurgeon emphasizes.

"Kids are encouraged to play in the store and touch the items," he says. "If a customer wants to try something, we want to encourage them to get it out of the box and let them experience it."

How does a multi-faceted, family-based retailer maintain product and concept quality during a major store expansion? Spurgeon says the key to the retailer's success thus far - and in the future - is its connection with the surrounding community. Zany Brainy, he explains, works hard to establish ties with neighboring schools, libraries and daycare centers.

"We make a particular effort whenever we enter new locations to become part of the communities and to set up strong relationships," he says, adding that motivated, involved store staffs also help. "We have people who are very motivated to become part of the store, and so far it has worked very well."

Later this month, Zany Brainy accomplishes a portion of its national expansion plan with its Northern California debut at Bridge Pointe center in San Mateo (the company currently has three Southern California sites). Spurgeon notes that the San Mateo location should be a preview for more sites in the area as it continues toward its century store mark sometime in late 1999.

"We hope to do in-fill locations in Northern California, and at this point I think we'll likely do three more sites [there] this year," he says. "We see great potential in the area for our concept."