Where did it all go wrong? The biggest toy store in town is in danger of being no more. Toys R Us is filing for bankruptcy in the US (a separate business from the one we are familiar with in Europe, but their destiny is surely linked).
If there is one type of bricks-andmortar store that has a host of tricks to keep the Internet wolf at bay, then surely it’s the mighty toy shop? When the whole premise of a visit to a toy shop is to have (and buy) fun, it’s an experiential open goal. Brands should be queuing up for space in demonstration areas to show off their latest new toy craze, to interact with children and parents and imprint their products in the minds of highly excitable consumers.
On top of that, “showrooming” shouldn’t even be an issue for toy stores. It should be easy to persuade parents to buy there and then - what parent is going to put themselves through even 24 hours of pestering whilst waiting for the Amazon Prime delivery to arrive, just to save 10 per cent? The satisfaction (or relief – call it what you will) of walking out of the store with a shiny new toy to entertain your child is worth far more than 10 per cent - as any parent will tell you.
So what’s gone wrong?
Have Toys R Us inexplicably failed to make toys fun as some analysts have suggested? Have they made shopping for toys boring with insipid POS, lifeless stores and disengaged staff? Have they lost their way so much that consumers prefer to just chuck in the Lego as they shop for their loo roll and other groceries on their weekly shop?
That’s a damning assessment, how can supermarket toy shopping ever equate to the thrill of spending an hour choosing between dozens of different brick-building options in an aircraft hanger-size cathedral of fun. Trying some, building some, dreaming the next purchase before you’ve even made this one.
Earlier in the year we made a family trip to Toys R Us to buy our three-year-old her first bike. We knew we could do Prime delivery for next day service, but we wanted her to enjoy the thrill of picking one out, taking it for a spin around the store and to value the purchasing process. We wanted her to understand that things don’t ‘just appear’ at the click of a button. Not always, anyway. But when we arrived, the bikes were in boxes on shelves and there was nobody to assist. What should have been a fun and memorable occasion turned to a functional, and ultimately disappointing waste of an afternoon – we’d have been better off with Prime after all.
It’s true that the woes of Toys R Us are not caused entirely by increased competition, they’re also due to enormous debt they were saddled with when private equity came calling over a decade ago. The Chapter 11 filing will free them from some of this debt, and the support of key suppliers keen for such a significant retailer to rise from the ashes will give Toys R Us a fighting chance, but they will still need to change, and quickly for this not to be the beginning of the end.
Lessons for us all
It’s too easy to dismiss the downfall of Toys R Us as just another victim of the Internet. Their consumers are still out there, but they have been pushed away by incompetence and boredom as much as pulled away by competitors. What can Toys R Us (and all bricks-and-mortar retailers) offer to bring consumers through the door, time and time again?
One answer is browsing.
This came to me watching a TV programme where the central character, portrayed as a technological dinosaur, was extolling the virtues of Encyclopaedias. His younger colleague told him that Google could provide any answer more quickly, in multiple media and was never out of date. But, our hero argued, when Googling, you have to know what you’re searching for - you’ll never just stumble across a golden nugget of information. And it’s the same with retail. When stores and brands encourage customers to browse, to pick things up and have a play, customers start to think about what else they may need, or better still want - beyond what they came looking for. Either this visit or next.
Like an encyclopaedia, a great store offers discovery of new things. Whether that is the child coming in for Lego and leaving with dreams of a trampoline or a bike, or the runner shopping for new shorts and leaving with a piece of technology which will inspire them to run more (and therefore need more kit), these discoveries are so much more likely in person.
When retail offers activities instore that appeal to the consumer, be they training runs or Scalextric races, there is reason to visit the store. When the environment, experience and the service are great, the thrill of the purchase goes beyond just ownership, and the reason to return grows.
If your customers love the buying process as much as the actual purchase, they’ll be as happy as, well, a kid in a toy shop.