When one thinks of Friday night destinations, it’s likely Toys “R” Us doesn’t come to mind. But when I was in middle school, that’s exactly what the retailer was for me, and why my heart broke when I heard Toys “R” Us was the latest chain to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection this past September.
Becoming an action figure collector was an inevitable part of growing up of the geek persuasion in the 1990s. We just had so many cool toys to choose from. So while the other boys were daydreaming about girls, I was fantasizing about what new X-Men action figures I might find in the hallowed halls of Toys “R” Us after school.
I look back on those Friday evening trips to Toys “R” Us with my mom with great fondness. And while I don’t have children of my own, I always assumed that when I did have kids, Toys “R” Us would be there to provide the backdrop for cherished memories of their own.
Now… I’m not so sure. And yet, I still believe the world needs Toys “R” Us.Troubled Times for the Toy Titan
On September 18, Toys “R” Us announced that it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, which would allow the company to restructure with the goal of long-term growth and stability. It’s the “dawn of a new era,” according to Dave Brandon, the organization’s chairman and chief executive officer, who is working with investors to tackle $5 billion in long-term debt.
Feeling more optimistic about the future?
While Toys “R” Us doors nationwide are still open to consumers, there’s no denying the convenience the retailer’s online competitors provide. Based on online sales figures from Statista’s e-commerce database, Amazon far outperformed Toys “R” Us in 2016. Amazon managed to generate toy and baby product online sales worth over $2.1 billion, while Toys “R” Us brought in $912 million. Did I mention that Walmart also beat Toys “R” Us with sales in the billions (over $1.2 billion to be precise)?
Not too inspiring for a store with “Toys” in its name.
Unfortunately, the bad news doesn’t stop there. The toy brands Toys “R” Us sells are also suffering due to the company’s financial woes. Hasbro, for instance, saw its shares dip almost 10 percent in the third quarter of 2017, according to CNN Money, while Mattel’s slipped by 4 percent.
Evolving to Please Modern Consumers
Fortunately, Toys “R” Us isn’t squandering its period of bankruptcy protection. Already, the retailer has introduced customer-facing changes, with more on the way. In October, Toys “R” Us rolled out its new Price Match Promise, which allows customers to purchase an item at a competitor’s advertised lower price. And to sweeten the deal, the company will donate $1 to Toys for Tots every time someone takes advantage of the promotion through December 24.
In addition, Toys “R” Us has embraced augmented reality through its Play Chaser app. Customers have an opportunity to join the company’s mascot Geoffrey as they partake in more than 10 interactive play experiences.
“We know consumers want more than just a place to shop – they want experiences – and at Toys “R” Us, they want to play,” said Global Chief Merchandising Officer Richard Barry.
Such thinking is essential to Toys “R” Us’ survival, according to Neil Saunders, managing director of retail for GlobalData.
“It’s vital for Toys “R” Us to give consumers reasons to visit its stores,” Saunders told USA Today. “This can only be achieved by spaces that offer experience and excitement. The current big warehouse type model just doesn’t cut it. It offers no compelling reason to visit over buying online.”
Is It Just Me?
When I see the data, when I listen to the experts, I truly wonder if I’m just another fool clinging to the past. I think nothing of criticizing the Trump supporter who desperately wants to bring back an America that will never return, and yet here I am championing a retailer that clearly hasn’t done much to adapt to the changing world until its financial troubles became too much to bear.
To figure out whether my rose-colored glasses needed a new prescription, I talked to some of my fellow AiPT! writers who are known to collect the occasional action figure.
Contributor David Hildebrand, for instance, visits his local Toys “R” Us at least once a week and prefers to look for harder-to-find collectibles there rather than Target or Walmart. As a self-professed “brick-and-mortar guy,” Hildebrand prefers not to shop online unless its his only option.
“Hell yes, I would miss Toys “R” Us,” Hildebrand said. “I grew up with this store, I can’t imagine it ever going away. In my opinion, it has stayed consistent the best it could with the changing times. They usually stock the stores twice a week and there is always going to be a decent assortment when you walk in.”
Fellow collector and AiPT! contributor Nick Nafpliotis is a little more jaded due to the ways Toys “R” Us stocks its stores.
“I got tired of their stock constantly staying the same,” Nafpliotis said. “The joke me and other collectors who came into the same store always said to each other was, ‘Still waiting on that truck?’ That’s because every time we tried to ask a Toys “R” Us employee if they were ever going to restock something–normally Marvel Legends or Stars Wars figures–their response was ‘the truck comes in on Tuesday.’ Not sure what the truck was carrying, but it never seemed to be anything anyone wanted.”
When searching for collectibles, Nafpliotis is now more likely to visit Target or Walgreens, as they can better restock and recycle inventory in his opinion. He admits that when he was a child, Toys “R” Us was a great place, but that could be more a result of nostalgia than how the store was run.
“You have one thing you’re supposed to do better than anyone,” Nafpliotis said. “If you can’t even get it halfway right, then why bother?”
Finally, David Brooke, AiPT!’s Media and Content Manager, said he shops for collectibles online 98 percent of the time, due in large part to the deep discounts and speedy shipping physical stores can’t offer.
“It’s a bit sad, isn’t it?” Brooke said of Toys “R” Us’ current predicament. “I still remember the commercial jingle and I care because it’s nostalgic, but I won’t miss the store.”
We Need Toys “R” Us!
So, it’s clear: Toys “R” Us has some issues it needs to resolve. But the more I think about the chain, the more time I spend remembering important moments in my geek life.
Like that time back in 1993, long before the internet spoiled everything, when I walked into the Toys “R” Us action figure aisle and a ton of Generation 1 Transformers in vibrant new colors and packaging. They’re back? And what is Generation 2? I had no idea what was going on at the time, but I left that store with a brand-new collecting goal. Then, there were all the times in college when my friends and I passed from one aisle to the next, taking silly pictures with whatever ridiculous toys were in sight (give us a break, we had MySpace profiles to update).
It’s possible I’m just a prisoner of my own cherished memories, but to me, Toys “R” Us is an institution, the same way brick-and-mortar comic shops and, yes, even good old-fashioned shopping malls are institutions (that sound you just heard was millions of millennial voices crying out in terror).
Before you obliterate me with comments, just hear me out. People spend way too much time staring at screens to begin with. Nielsen found that U.S. adults spent a total of 10 hours and 39 minutes each day looking at such devices as computers, smartphones and tablets in the first quarter of 2016. Unplug and take a walk around Toys “R” Us!
Plus, you learn a lot about life when you start toy collecting at a young age. You’re a New Mutant and Toys “R” Us is your Danger Room. In your search for rare action figures, you overcome your shyness to ask store employees if they have any more of that desired toy out back. While you hone your social skills, you also learn the value of patience–and persistence. You’ll return, Friday after Friday, often going home empty-handed. In the process, you understand one of life’s most bitter lessons–you don’t always get what you want. But eventually, your efforts will pay off, and the day you finally see that figure hanging on the shelf… well, there’s no sweeter feeling. It’s in that moment you truly understand the meaning of happiness.
Or, you never find that toy in the wild, have to pay twice the retail price for it at your local comic shop and understand that if you want to live life as a toy collector, you better work hard and get a high-paying job to cover the costs of your expensive hobby. Either way, it all builds character.
So, I’m rooting for Toys “R” Us to get its act together. I believe in Geoffrey and can’t stand to see him on the list of endangered mascots. Please don’t let me outlive Toys “R” Us the way I outlived KB Toys and Child World.