Retail Insights, Strategy and Operations

Toys’R’Was

At the risk of rolling out all the easy clichés – the game is over, playtime is done, Toy Story: The Final Chapter – the demise of Toys’R’Us is not as obvious as it might seem.

A combination of being in the wrong place at an even wronger time, some really bad business decisions and a factor or two totally out of its control brought down what was both once the largest seller of toys in the business as well as the retailer that pretty much invented the very concept of the category killer big box store.

The immediate and longer-term aftershocks of TRU’s fall will include both the predictable – overall toy sales will decline, big suppliers Hasbro and Mattel will suffer and shoppers will have fewer choices on the night before Christmas – and the less certain – the future of retail real estate usage, global commerce and entertainment-based licensing opportunities.

But as we write the Toys obituary, let’s make sure we all understand what truly happened to bring down the Big Giraffe:

  1. First and foremost, it was all about the debt. KKR, Bain Capital and Vornado loaded up this baby with enough accounts payable – close to $5 billion at the end – to bring down a good sized Third World nation. The Great Recession screwed up the flipping timetable, further exacerbating the problems. The fact is that retail these days – in fact retail in most days – just doesn’t spin off the cash to pay down these enormous debt loads. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise, the odd exception notwithstanding.
  2. Online did to TRU what it’s done to most physical retailers. OK, this is the Amazonian headline everybody’s going to go to…and they’re not wrong. Toys was slow to get its online act together, slower than most, and it’s never really recovered. But it by no means tells the whole story.
  3. Bad merchandising decisions played their part to be sure. The company closed its Times Square flagship a few years back, citing the exorbitant rent. No doubt it was really expensive, but that’s why it’s called prime real estate. Whatever the price, it was priceless.
  4. They never understood market segmentation. Take the closing and eventual sale of the FAO Schwarz business. Here was a way for Toys to operate a Walmart/Target/Amazon-proof brand, with exclusive product, an immersive shopping experience and all the genuine characteristics today’s shopper is asking for. TRU wasted a great opportunity handed to it on a toy plate.
  5. And here’s the one everyone is missing: There are just fewer customers available to buy toys and juvenile products. We are in the middle of a major baby bust and have been so for several years. In 2007 the U.S. recorded the highest number of births ever – higher even than in the fabled Baby Boom days – with 4.3 million babies born. It’s been going down ever since and by 2016, the last year complete numbers have been released, it was down to 3.9 million. That’s a falloff of just under 10 percent. You trying operating your business with a customer base reduced by a tenth. It doesn’t matter how many grandparents and baby showers you have, there’s just less opportunity to do business when there are less potential customers.

Like a giant retail jigsaw puzzle, you put all of these pieces together and it adds up: to seven…as in Chapter 7 liquidation. But as with any good retailer that goes under, don’t be surprised if someday soon there is a sequel to this toy story. (Sorry, couldn’t resist one last bad…eh, play on words…)

Warren Shoulberg was a little too old to be a Toys’R’Us kid but admits he would go to their stores…just to revisit his childhood. 

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