The news about Toys R Us closing is not shocking given the rapid slide over the last month or so… but still hits me fairly hard. The truth is I didn’t go to the store that often anymore because quite frankly it was inconvenient. I did however take the opportunity on a regular occasion to visit them while roaming around other towns. I’ve been to at least one Toys R Us in San Antonio for awhile while we were down there for Pax South, but in that case it was largely because it was beside a Container Store my wife wanted to go to. I think ultimately everyone stopped going to the store for their various reasons, and this is yet another step along the chain to the loss of brick and mortar retail as a whole. It does however make me nostalgic about the Toys R Us from my past.
I found this image online, and decided to use it because more or less this represents the Toys R Us I remember from my childhood. The closest location for me was roughly an hour from my home and it was a destination location for whenever I had birthday money to spend. The reason why is that because as a kid it felt like Toys R Us had literally everything we could ever want to play with. You would go there and see toy lines that you didn’t even know existed, and for the ones you did know about… they usually had one of every figure in the line along with all of the accessories you had only heard about.
As my passion for Star Wars, GI Joe and the Thundercats turned to Video Games… Toys R Us became in a way more elevated in my mind as a destination for glory. During the heyday of the Nintendo Entertainment System they stocked what felt like every single game available for the system. For those who were not around during this era I found an image online representing how games were presented to us. There would be essentially the cover of one of the games with maybe some information about it on the backside hanging on a rack with some tickets. You would dread getting to the store and seeing an empty envelope hanging beneath the game you were looking for. I remember a few sad trips up to the redemption booth to ask if they maybe had one more copy of whatever game I was wanting somewhere in the back.
Regardless any time I managed to save up enough money to get a new game… I was immediately pestering my parents to see when we could next make the hour long slog to Tulsa and visit Toys R Us. I remember feeling like the Ticket Booth was a magical portal that had a copy of everything ever in existence… rather than just the entrance to the stock room. The core problem with the Toys R Us equation is that they made their name on being the “Biggest Toy Store There Is”. That meant to keep the promise they needed to stock more of everything to be that go to place when someone can’t find something anywhere else.
The problem is the “Children’s Bargain Town” slogan was mostly a lie, because as soon as I understood the concept of money… I understood that everything cost a little bit more at Toys R Us. In my market for a good chunk of my childhood there were was a single Toys R Us location. During the late 80s and early 90s they built a second location in what seemed to be the next up and coming area of town. However at no point was Toys R Us the bargain option. On the value for your money spectrum you had Walmart as the cheapest place you could buy anything followed fairly closely by K-Mart and Target being roughly the same. From there you jumped up to the Mall offerings of Circus World and KB Toys… and in a far distant end of the spectrum you had Toys R Us. I remember when Nintendo was king, a game at Toys R Us cost roughly ten dollars more than a game at Walmart for example.
Since they could not compete on price, they had to compete on the sheer nonsense amount of stuff they carried… but in the mid to late 90s that equation changed to. They started clearing out sections of the store to hollow them out and make room for the Babies R Us Franchise. In our store this meant that no longer did they carry products that you had never heard of… or in most cases even the entire product line for the ones you had heard of. Also it was around this time that the Video Game section was ejected from is prime real estate and shoved into a cubical in the far corner of the store the furthest location from the door. Additionally they shifted away from the ticket system and started carrying far fewer items meaning that they lost their sheer selection advantage over other stores. I remember trying Toys R Us first a few times like when Final Fantasy III (VI) came out… but finding them completely out of stock and having to move on and ultimately pick it up from Target.
As they lost selection advantage it felt like they started pushing more and more for product advantage by strong arming producers into creating a plethora of “exclusive” lines available only at Toys R Us. The problem is that this was ultimately a losing battle as well because for example in my metro area at our height we had 2 Toys R Us locations. On the other hand we have around twenty Walmart stores and about half that number of Targets. If you expand that out to the United States as a whole… the amount of products that discount retailers purchase and stock as compared to specialty toy retailers has to be staggering. So following on the heels quickly similarly exclusive product offerings started showing up in Target and then not long after Walmart diluting whatever advantage you once had. Sure you could get a collector into your store to buy that one product, but it was likely they were ONLY buying that and then moving onto another location where the money stretched a little further.
The up-swell of GameStop and Best Buy during the 90’s put a nail in the coffin in product offering advantage Toys R Us might have had on the video games front as well. Why would you go to Toys R Us for what was already a limited offering from their glory days… when you could just go to GameStop and find the return of carrying every available product offering for each console? Every one of these missteps hurt Toys R Us long before online retailing came in to take the final chomp out of it. Unfortunately the “biggest toy store there is” crown now belongs to Amazon. Why would you drive from store to store to find the one action figure you want… when you can just place an order online and get it shipped to your door in two days time?
On the video game side we have a wide array of digital store fronts allowing us to plunk down our money… and get a game within a few minutes rather than needing to throw pants on and drive to the store. For me personally the convenience is king over anything else. I could in theory purchase some of the games cheaper in physical form from Amazon and have the discs shipped to me in two days. However I would rather just have the game installed and always “on tap” rather than needing to fiddle for the disc or figure out which case I shoved which game into. In truth I am having a hard time remembering what the last game I purchased in physical form was. More than likely it was World of Warcraft Cataclysm collectors edition, and even then only because they had not yet started offering digital collectors editions of their games. From Pandaria onwards I happily gobbled up that digital CE and went on with my life rather than trying to hope and pray that Amazon would ship the game on time for me to hit the midnight start.
On consoles it is even more important to me personally to have games digitally, because when I take my switch or 3DS somewhere I don’t want to juggle a bunch of awkward cartridges… nor do I want some sort of a “cozy” that I carry around with me to keep them organized. I want the ability to flip to the game I want, hit a button and boot directly into it with no muss or fuss. Since at least 2007 I have been 99.9% digital in my game purchases, and each one of those sales is in theory one that could have gone to a retailer like Toys R Us. I am part of the problem and I am absolutely part of why this store is closing.
I have a deep nostalgia about my experiences with Toys R Us as a kid, but the adult version never quite lived up to those memories. While I would like to think I am still a Toys R Us kid at heart and can break into song singing the theme… I never had kids of my own to continue the tradition with. Additionally shopping at the physical store is inconvenient and requires a trip to a completely different area of town than I visit on a regular basis. Before the second store closed a few years ago… I used to go to that one occasionally because it was easy to get in and out of without a lot of hassle. I remember semi-regularly visiting when I was looking for Lego Minifigures blind bags and even finding some ones stashed from an ancient series.
The problem is… I maybe went there once a month if that and prior to the blind bags… it had been maybe five years since I had darkened the door of that store. I will miss the Toys R Us from my memories, and this absolutely feels like one of those “end of an era” moments. However it will join the same memory bin where Babbages, Software Etc, Media Play, Hastings, Circuit City, Computer City, Comp USA, KB Toys, Circus World and countless other stores I liked going to… but no longer exist. Part of getting older is remembering fondly things that don’t exist anymore… and I guess after a decline that started decades ago… I am okay with adding Toys R Us to that stack.