Toys R Us is the walking dead.
I know, it’s not over for the chain right now. It’s bankrupt, and officials claim they aren’t closing their 1,600 stores nationwide. But remember when Borders told us its bankruptcy meant a restructuring of the brand, only for our beloved bookstores to close about six months later?
I find it hard to believe Toys R Us isn’t hobbling along that struggle journey. The news on Monday stung. I mean, Hello Kitty, Barbie, Yoda and My Little Pony still decorate my desk. Like most little kids in the ’80s, I loved Geoffrey the Giraffe and sang the song:
“I don’t want to grow up, I’m a Toys R Us kid. There’s a million toys at Toys R Us that I can play with. From bikes and trains to video games, it’s the biggest toy store there is. I don’t wanna grow up, cause if I did, I couldn’t be a Toys R Us kid.”
But is anyone a Toys R Us kid anymore? My niece and nephew certainly aren’t.
Sure you can blame the rise of Amazon, with its two-day shipping and competitive prices. The online superstore sold $2.1 billion worth of baby products and toys last year. Toys R Us was way behind with $912 million. But it’s not all about digital sales. Even Walmart outsold the former toy giant.
Only one person I know regularly takes his kids to Toys R Us, and even he said it’s like going to Radio Shack. It just looks like a place that’s struggling.
So I took a stroll through the aisles of the Overland Park Toys R Us. It wasn’t so much a walk down memory lane as it was a game of Where’s Waldo for my sentimental warm and fuzzies. That sting I felt over the bankruptcy was fading fast in the terrible lighting. I was having a hard time remembering being in the toy chain as a child at all.
I stared at a sad little endcap full of Cabbage Patch Kids that looked a lot less cute than the ones parents so ridiculously rioted over in the ’80s. In my mind, I could see my 3-year old self hugging a homely old Cabbage Patch Kid. Had it come from Toys R Us?
I called my dad. He said I was definitely a Toys R Us kid. I wrote wish lists. I put stickers on catalogs. I wanted Care Bears and He-Man and Lego. I was never restricted to those old-school boy and girl aisles. Now I remember all of that. I even remember opening a Cherries Jubilee My Little Pony one Christmas. And after talking to my dad, I vaguely remember meeting Geoffrey. But the sound of my dad’s voice, and none of the store talk, was the only thing tugging at my heart. How is it I know every word to this song but feel no ties to the failing corporation?
I vividly remember playing at Chuck E. Cheese and ShowBiz Pizza for birthday parties. I can feel my dad’s hand in mine walking me to the library so I could complete the Pizza Hut summer reading challenge. Weekends at the pool with my mama are unforgettable. Those are all things I still love. Even Chuck E. Cheese. My bestie’s daughter loves it too, and I’ll pop a token in every ride so she can laugh.
And maybe that’s the problem with Toys R Us. It’s not an experience. It’s not like the Lego store. Or Apple. You don’t get to interact with the toys; they’re all in plastic and boxes. Adults buy. Children play at home.
I get it: It’s a store. But here’s the thing — it’s a children’s store.
As I said, the kids in my family don’t ask for Toys R Us. But my niece likes Build-A-Bear, where she can construct her own cuddly friend. She likes Target, which has toys and clothes and Starbucks — with cake pops. And her favorite store is American Girl, where she can get her doll’s hair done and go little-girl crazy. Her dad takes her there for special treats. The last time I talked to her on FaceTime, she asked me to go with her when I visit. “I have my own money,” she said. Anyone could take her. It’s just something she wants to share with me.
That’s what Toys R Us needs to survive. The big box store needs to go big on experience, to become a place where families can make memories around their purchases.
Liberate a few of those hot-item toys from their boxes and allow kids to test drive them. Add a play room. Maybe pull some of those kiddie cars and bikes off the shelves and make a safe but fun little track. Create an interactive, child-friendly environment and host monthly events.
What can separate Toys R Us from the other businesses hustling kids? Heart. Offer something deeper than a hole burning in your bank account. A toy is fun, but family time is forever.
And if I was too young and dumb to say it back then, thanks for the toys, Mom and Dad.