During the two years we were blessed to raise our little girl from Haiti, there was no bigger adventure than a trip to Toys ‘R’ Us. To adults, it might have been a megastore, big and boxy, but to a 5-year-old, it was Shangri-La.
All those toys in one place! I would lift her into the shopping cart and push her up and down the aisles. She looked like a princess surveying her magic kingdom. “Stop here!” she’d squeal. “Stop here!” She knew she could only pick one toy to take home, those were the rules, but, oh, the possibilities!
So it dug at my heart to read that Toys ‘R’ Us is closing down, likely shuttering all 800 of its stores, leaving landscapes of giant empty buildings and some 30,000 employees out of work.
I know there are business reasons. Massive debt. Heavy competition. A reputation for poor customer service.
But to 5-year-olds, it just means “no more toy store to go to.”
And so, for a moment, let’s look at it that way.
Small to big. Bigger to nothing
First, some history. Long before Toys ‘R’ Us was an idea, there were small local stores in cities and towns. They carried board games, dolls, cowboy outfits, ball and jacks sets.
Then came the shopping mall in the 1950s, and chain stores and specialty shops began to spread, eventually putting small local stores out of business.
About this time, a guy named Charles Lazarus, who owned a kids furniture shop near Washington, D.C., noticed that his customers kept requesting toys. And when he stocked them, he noticed those customers returned frequently — often to replace a toy their kids broke.
Pretty soon, Lazarus was into toys exclusively. He grew his first Toys ‘R’ Us store to resemble a supermarket. More stores followed. More after that. Dozens. Hundreds. For a while, they dominated the market as the only toy retailer even close to its size. With a giraffe as its mascot, Toys ‘R’ Us went public in 1978; toys had taken Lazarus all the way to the stock market.
But when small gets big, others get interested. Soon, Lazarus had competition, especially when video games became a big part of the toy landscape. Other chain stores dove in, and by the mid-1990s, Toys ‘R’ Us, which had become an international behemoth, was beginning to see declines.
Lazarus retired in 1994. Eleven years later, in 2005, the company was sold off to private equity firms, who loaded it with debt. Box stores like Walmart and Target kept eating away at the business, and the Internet (meaning Amazon) was the final blow.
Toys ‘R’ Us, under the guidance of former University of Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon, filed for bankruptcy last year.
And last week it announced it will shut its doors for good.
Small to big. Big to bigger. Bigger to nothing.
Walmart, Amazon don’t compare
So in many ways, this is just another example of the Pac-Man reality of American business. One dot eats the other dots until there’s only one dot left. But if that’s the case with the toy business, we will have lost something beyond variety.
Going to Walmart for dolls, games or castles is, to a kid, sorry Walmart, not the same as going to an exclusive toy store. Going online to order an action figure or a miniature oven is, sorry Amazon, not the same as trying it out and saying to Mommy or Daddy, “Please? Can I have it? Please?”
We once took Chika, our little girl, to New York City, and the flagship Toys ‘R’ Us store in Times Square. I can still see her eyes bulging at the indoor Ferris Wheel, which we rode (several times) as she gazed out on floor after floor of toys. For her, this was like spinning through Wonderland. So was walking amongst giant stuffed animals — a virtual zoo of them — and sifting through racks of dresses, holding them up in a mirror and imagining herself as Cinderella or Belle. Countless kids had similar experiences at the famed FAO Schwartz, until it, too, closed its doors.
You won’t get that kind of thing by typing in “dress + child + princess” on a computer screen. And while no one is saying an ocean of toys is good for a child’s perspective, and you certainly don’t make a weekly habit of that indulgence, the periodic visit doesn’t hurt a kid any more than the occasional ice cream.
And if you can’t have some indulgent fun with children, who can you have it with?
In the movie “Big,” a struggling toy maker thrives when a childish Tom Hanks gets to inhabit an adult’s body, and make deep-voiced decisions from the cortex of a 12-year-old’s brain. It works, because the company for kids is being steered by a kid.
So with Toys ‘R’ Us heading to oblivion, I hope parents will think like a kid, and find the handful of small toy stores still left out there. They can’t compete with inventory and they’ll likely have to charge more, but the experience of walking a child through a place made just for them should not be lost to corporate greed and leveraged buyouts.
Small to big. Big to bigger. Bigger to nothing. Maybe the next step is back to the beginning.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Friday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.