Rooting for Toys “R” Us

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Many years ago, I had the privilege to meet and interview Charles Lazarus, founder and chairman of the groundbreaking Toys “R” Us superstore. STORES was celebrating Lazarus’ Gold Medal — an honor bestowed by the National Retail Federation for excellence in retail. (This pinnacle award is now called The Visionary.) Lazarus had just relinquished the CEO title to Michael Goldstein for the first time since the company’s inception and was energized by what he believed the future held.

Prior to the meet-up, several colleagues shared that Lazarus was a tough taskmaster, cautioning me to be prepared, skip informalities and expect some terse responses. What I experienced couldn’t have been farther from that. Lazarus was absolutely beaming at the honor, happily sharing details of the early days, his thoughts on how important play time and toys were to young children and his vision for the future. His passion was effusive, and I left that day knowing I’d experienced something very special.

I share that story to provide a bit of context as to why I stand with a handful of experts and legions of one-time Toys “R” Us “kids” rooting for the retailer to make a comeback. Bloomberg News has reported that two stores will open this holiday season, with the goal of 10 locations by the end of 2020. The newest iteration will have a much smaller footprint – 6,500-10,000 square feet, compared with the 30,000-square-foot big-box stores the retailer operated years ago.

Richard Barry, the former global chief merchandising officer for Toys “R” Us, is behind the effort. Barry, now president and CEO of the new Tru Kids Inc., which owns the Toys “R” Us trademark, envisions a store that includes more play areas. And Bloomberg reports that rather than buy goods from suppliers, Barry is pitching a consignment arrangement to keep costs down. (Many will recall the precipice of Toys “R” Us’ demise was a crippling debt load.)

There are a lot of skeptics. Some point out that trying to reestablish relevancy in a market now crammed with large competitors would be difficult at best. Many have said 10 locations are just not enough. Without scale, unique product or inimitable experience, doomsayers believe the toy retailer will have a tough road ahead.

All of that may be true by some measure. But I’d like to believe an impassioned group of retailers can bring something new to the art of selling toys. Whether that means a return to the big-box era is unclear, but an environment that sparks wonder, encourages interaction beyond a screen and invites parents to pause just long enough to play without distraction sounds nothing short of magical to me. No doubt, there’s a bit of nostalgia in my heart. Still, young children need to play more — with each other and with adults. If a reimagined Toys “R” Us can be a catalyst for change, I’m betting nothing would make Charles Lazarus happier.

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