Could Toys R’Us have saved itself?


If you are like me and attend events where people talk about disruption, transformation and customer experience, then you’re most likely familiar with the brands that speakers love to mention when they talk about disruption:

  • Kodak, who designed the first digital camera yet bet the bank on film. Yeah…
  • Blockbuster, who never left the brick and mortar model for movie rentals, and left the door open for streaming services.

Those two (of the myriad of disrupted businesses) are the ones that almost always get mentioned. Here’s one more big name we can add to the list: Toys R’Us (as if you didn’t see that coming from the headline)

Toys R’Us is no longer trading in Australia, soon after the closure in the US market in June 2018. When they closed in the US, they posted a wonderful message:

Thanks to each of you who shared your amazing journey to (and through) parenthood with us, and to every grandparent, aunt, uncle, brother, and sister who’s built a couch-cushion rocket ship, made up a hero adventure, or invented something gooey. Promise us just this one thing: Don’t ever grow up. Play on!

The last line is echoed on the Australian site, and reflects their most famous brand tagline – “I don’t want to grow up, I’m a Toys R’Us kid”

It’s heartfelt, beautiful, but it’s…really not what I think of when I think of Toys R’Us.

It was clear from that message – as much as the big giraffe’s board might have believed in that vision, the experience of “Play on!” was completely missing from the Toys R’Us store experience. This is a Google Image Search for “Toys R’Us aisles”

Screenshot_2018-08-09 toysrus aisles - Google Search.jpg

Do you see it? Rows and rows of shelving, bin ends, price matching. One of the keywords that Google suggested is “grocery”, and this is where the Toys R’Us ended up. Competing with supermarkets and chain stores where toys were treated as commoditised, resentment based shopping.

The potential to transform itself through appealing to their specific location, using brand loyalty, could have done wonders for the brand. Not only to make it relevant, but also to tie it back to the brand values.

Nike’s new concept store in LA looks like it will execute these concepts brilliantly, leveraging knowledge about their Nike Plus member base in the area to create something unique. While Nike has the advantage of being an owned brand (rather than a distributor), Toys R’Us had a more powerful advantage – family.

The buying of toys is a celebration, a way for everyone in the family to feel young and connect through play. The mind boggles in how many ways Toys R’Us could have become the indispensible connector for families and communities around enjoying play. Especially with the movement in the past years towards STEM and STEAM based learning, and also the benefit of play for empowering adult creativity!

Whether a science learning zone, a Nerf target practice area, dressup/cosplay on stage, workshops teaching parents how to put together that bike. Or even LEGO masterclasses giving tips and tricks to parents so they can go home and confidently build that LEGO Star Wars Millennium Falcon without losing their minds.

Toys R’Us deserves to be talked about at those events, as a brand lost to disruption. It was such a missed opportunity to transform its business model – both at the consumer side, and obviously culturally.

Farewell Toys R’Us. We knew you well, but you didn’t know us well enough.

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