Each step down the long hallway painted with colorful stripes and the welcoming face of Geoffrey was a step into a dreamland. Most everyone would agree, since its inception in the late 1940s, Toys “R” Us was a magical place. In the 1980s, its jingle playing on commercial breaks during A Garfield Christmas and Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer became a Christmas carol in its own right. The lengthy aisles, each built around a theme, made it easy to find anything from Star Wars, Masters of the Universe, and G.I. Joe to Rainbow Bright, My Little Pony, and Barbie. Mixed in between these major pillars of childhood were model planes, a wide selection of bikes, Play-Doh, Crayola, and of course, the very best place to find Atari, Nintendo, and SEGA gaming systems.
You’d think those of us who grew up with brick-and-mortar stores would be accustomed to toy stores going the way of the dodo (see Lionel Playworld, FAO Schwarz, and more). Still, a very sad day has come with the news that Toys “R” Us is closing its doors. It was only a few years ago that we collectively mourned the loss of KB Toys, that scrappy little toy store found in every American mall, that carried most of the collectibles we were looking for. It was a tradition to go to stores like KB or TRU with our parents or relatives to get that special toy. Not only that, it was a shared experience – other kids would see what you got and be as excited as you were! And the smiles on our faces brightened in a way that’s impossible to forget.
TRU’s Impact on the Toy Industry
Toys “R” Us helped grow several toy companies. Companies like Mattel, Hasbro, and Entertainment Earth knew that getting products carried by the retail giant could ensure success for a toy line. When Kenner took the massive risk of 3 3/4-inch action figures from a low-budget science-fiction movie, it was Toys “R” Us they really wanted to appeal to. When Mattel wanted to make collector lines of Barbie, they knew that securing a glass display case in the perfect isle at TRU was the only way to move the relatively expensive fashion dolls.
Toys “R” Us didn’t just support big toy companies either. It was the medium and small companies that really thrived at the toy store. With its impressive size and market share, TRU was willing and able to try new things. They could experiment with collectibles that other retailers didn’t have the shelf space for. Companies like NECA, Mezco Toys, Playmobil, and Bif Bang Pow! flourished. This openness, which was sometimes seen as controversial (especially in the case of the Bif Bang Pow! Dexter action figure), was one of the major factors that opened up the collector’s market, bringing more niche collectibles to a broader audience.
In fact, Toys “R” Us – their shelves, their commercials, and their massive catalog – gave many of us a feeling of desire and satisfaction that we still long for. Pull up an old commercial of theirs on YouTube, and you’ll see exactly what we mean.
Both Toys “R” Us and KB Toys meant a lot as we got older, too. As a collector, you could get the 2001 re-issued Masters of the Universe figures in a massive set at TRU or go on a toy run to every KB store within a few miles to find Star Wars figures that would go on clearance at odd times. When Pop! Vinyl figures started hitting the market, Toys “R” Us had some pretty great exclusives that Funko collectors couldn’t be without. And for the past 10 years when Entertainment Earth partnered with Toys “R” Us to bring their exclusives to San Diego Comic-Con, attendees couldn’t get enough.
However, there was also some push-back from collectors. Some felt the TRU magic that once was, was no longer there. The fact is, it wasn’t that we had grown up and grown out of the market, it was that the company really didn’t grow with the industry.
While we don’t want to be reductive and lament a way of life that’s receded into the past, Amazon has made it easier than ever to get the toys you want. And Entertainment Earth, which was the first retailer and competitor to have a branded section on the TRU website, offers things like Mint Condition Guarantee, something that TRU’s collecting customer base were clamoring for.
But online shopping isn’t the entire reason Toys “R” Us went under. (It’s mostly their massive debt that did them in.) We can also look at big-box stores like Target and Walmart that took some of the market shares. If you’re heading to a birthday party and need to pick up a gift, it’s easy to get mom or dad to do it while they’re picking up groceries, some new clothes, or motor oil at the same place. And there’s no doubt that the layout of these shopping behemoths influenced every Toys “R” Us redesign, moving the stores from the long magical aisles to smaller groupings by brand and theme. The department store composition allowed for greater visibility of certain brands, but it took away from the aesthetic that drove our childhood fantasies.
So, What Happens Now?
The irony here is that many of us who mourn the closure probably weren’t as frequent TRU shoppers as we should have been. Most of us haven’t stepped into a Toys “R” Us for a while – unless of course, we were looking for a bit of nostalgia! Our access to toys has increased quite a bit. Mainstream toys and high-end collectibles can be found at the aforementioned big-box stores, as well as online, and often for cheaper than you could find at TRU.
But even with Toy “R” Us shutting its doors, there’s still a wealth of other options for collectors. Brick-and-mortar stores – from the mom-and-pop to the big retailers – aren’t dead and they are supported in part by EE Distribution, a division of Entertainment Earth. They understand that to be successful, their physical stores should build upon the online shopping model to transform store experience. This new breed of stores has significant online aspects that can send customers push notifications when new items release or when special events might drive traffic to the store. Yes, adaptation on every level is necessary, but as always, the customer experience comes first.
When a big company passes into the world of yesteryear, the truth is that they rarely leave a gap that hasn’t already been filled. There will never be another story quite like Toys “R” Us, but with a plethora of options and unbridled access to toy and collectible items through specialty stores and online retailers, we’re mourning our own childhood more than we are Geoffrey’s empire.