An Ode to Toys R Us


“I don’t wanna grow up, I’m a Toys R Us kid
they got a million toys at Toys R us that I can play with
I don’t wanna grow up, I’m a Toys R Us kid
they got the best for so much less, it’ll really flip your lid
From bikes to trains to video games
it’s the biggest toy store there is (gee whiz!)
I don’t wanna grow up, cause maybe if I did
I couldn’t be a Toys R Us kid
more games, more toys, oh boy!
I wanna be a Toys R Us kid”

As a kid growing up in the 80s and early 90s, I knew the jingle like many of my friends. The commercials blanketed Saturday morning cartoons, and after trips to the mall (remember when those used to be popular, along with mall arcades?) my parents would take us to Toys R Us.

It was a magical place for an 9 year old. It had basically everything you could ever want. You first walked into a maze of filler (even 9 year olds knew the real toys were in back) and then reached the back aisles. For me and my brother, we would go straight to the Nintendo aisle, which was essentially a bunch of pictures of various nintendo games all the way down the aisle along with a ticket you would have to pick if you wanted to take the front to buy. My brother and I would pool our money. If we had 20 bucks each, we would magically spend $40 on one game. If we had $10, we would get a $19 game, and so on. There were games of many price points for a broke kid to choose. The selections were limitless. Kmart didn’t have it. Walmart didn’t have it. K-B Toys certainly didn’t have it.

When it came to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and G.I. Joe, Toys R Us was the joint. It had to display the largest assortment of action figures and vehicles. It didn’t matter what wave it came in. Searching wasn’t required. It was a one stop toy wonderland.

Sometimes, my budget was only $3.15, only enough to cover a G.I. Joe plus tax (I had the largest collection in my grade). I would browse for 30 minutes all the toys I could never buy from all the commercials I saw. Ghostbusters. M.A.S.K. Thundercats. He-Man. Whatever. I didn’t know what the hype was with Star Wars. To me, I found it strange my friend’s older siblings used to collect them, kept pristine in the packaging. For a 9 year old, this was blasphemy. My toys were always opened during the ride home in the car.

We moved to Germany after elementary school, so I never again visited a Toys R Us until I became a parent. In fact, I don’t think I ever saw a commercial again with the jingle stuck in my mind. My kids watch Netflix. There are no commercial jingles to seep into their consciousness. They certainly know the McDonald arches, but Toys R Us, I don’t think they’ve ever asked. It’s a place they go to see a giraffe sometimes and do a lego demonstration.

This is the inherent problem with their business model. It’s outdated.

Sandwiched between Target and Walmart, which cleaner and newer stores, and online delivery with Amazon, Toys R Us is in a pricing vortex of hell. They simply can’t compete on price while supplying enough cash flow to pay off debt. Some blame Vornado Realty Trust and Bain Capital and KKR and the debt load saddled on Toys R Us. I say perhaps. Take one look at K-Mart, and you can see what happens when you don’t win on price and invest very little into your locations. It’s a branding death spiral.

I’ve been to Toys R Us a few times in the last couple years, and in my opinion, it was clear bankruptcy was inevitable. The parking lots were often crumbling. The facade and paint was worn. When you walk inside, there was the same maze of worthless stuff when you entered, except now, to get to the video games it was usually near the cash wraps. The Lego aisle was always the best of any store (even THE Lego store), the board game section had every expansion known to man, and Star Wars had every variant. The prices always seemed above retail so their promotions would seem like a deal (Buy one get one 50% off isn’t a deal when Walmart already sells it for 40% off all year around). Amazon ships faster and has a larger selection and a return policy where you don’t have to look at an employee to get a refund. Who returns their kid’s toys?

Despite the nostalgia, I was guilty of almost never buying from Toys R Us unless I was exploiting a price mistake or flipping some rare exclusive, despite having the funds to do so. Even for a measly $5, I would simply have my kid wait and buy something online, sometimes right there in the store.

The only hope was store exclusives (which got destroyed by resellers simply clearing the shelf and adding it to Amazon’s inventory) and a better customer experience (toy demonstrations and the giraffe (which will be missed). As for more knowledgeable customer service, I would admit, Walmart toy people are really shelf stockers who can’t tell you anything about anything and seemed angry to be there. Target toy people are really teenage employees in the electronics section spending their time hitting on their coworkers. Amazon, well, you’ll get a customer service rep from India. Toys R Us actually had knowledgeable people in most of the store, and some are downright kids that took the song to heart. One time, I bought a video game at 9pm and didn’t leave until 9:20pm because the guy who rang me up talked about the upcoming Nintendo Switch launch and said he stayed up all night to watch the launch and spouted off all the advantages and reasons why it would be huge. This compares to a visit at Game Stop the same month, where a customer came in, and I heard the guru behind the counter saying the switch would fail like the PS Vita (If you are under 28 and working at Gamestop, you don’t realize the purchasing power of the Nintendo generation). Clearly, my sample size is small, but generally speaking, Gamestop hires assholes paid to lowball people on trade-ins and Toys R Us hires people spending their day in a toy store where a lot of children come in (exception: Toys R Us Managers always tended to be assholes for just about any issue).

What did we lose? Really nothing I suppose. The business model is long broken. The only thing that can’t be replaced is customer experience and having a place ours kids can go if they get good grades on a report card. Everything else, parents can fill in for. We can actually play with our kids and show excitement with the toy, not just forking over cash in the store. We can take them to a Lego convention instead of seeing the Giraffe to build 50 cents worth of legos to a “Batman car.” We can pick up another controller and play with them the video game they want. For experts, we can read blogs and watch youtube  toy reviews. One nostalgic experience can be replaced with something newer, and hopefully better for the next generation.

And we can all still pay the lowest damn price possible. May the best retailer win.

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