Toys Story 3: Will The Latest Toys ‘R’ Us Sequel Succeed?

Sequels and remakes are the stuff of Hollywood and even sometimes are successful but when it comes to retailing, it’s usually a very different story.

Retail brands that are resurrected, resuscitated or otherwise brought back to life after being pronounced dead are a relatively rare occurrence and even if they continue, it’s often on life support.

So it is with some historical skepticism that the industry watched the news of the latest iteration of Toys “R”Us, once the nation’s preeminent seller of all things toy and generally credited with inventing the category killer retail business model.

Its current owners, investment firm WHP Global, announced last week it would be opening the first store under its reign, in New Jersey’s mega-monster-mall American Dream, later this month. At 20,000-square-feet it would be neither a recreation of the original giant warehouse format that Toys operated in its heyday or the smaller boutique-style specialty store we last saw for a brief pre-pandemic moment under its previous ownership.

(As a footnote, the new owners have said they were hoping to recreate the experiential element of the original Toys stores but perhaps they forgot what those stores were actually like. Those Toys stores of their glory days were claustrophobic, overwhelming warehouses with merchandise stacked up on high shelving like a membership club and the only experience a shopper had was the sense of relief when they got out of them.)

This new store will be two levels, have an ice cream parlor and be situated adjacent to the kid-friendly region of American Dream which features an indoor Nickelodeon-branded amusement park, a DreamWorks water park and a giant candy store. And while this new store is referred to as a “flagship” it would seem you need to have more than a single location to call one of them the lead dog of the chain, don’t you think?

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So, one has to weigh the plusses and minuses of this latest incarnation of the brand when trying to determine if Toys will be a sustainable business this time after two previous failures.

On the plus side:

• That location is right, it’s where families, locals and tourists alike, will be congregating when in a toy buying frame of mind. American Dream has its challenges to be sure but if any part of it is going to succeed it’s the area that appeals to families looking to be amused.

• The Toys “R”Us brand, even though it’s been essentially out of the retail mainstream for going on five years, still resonates with millennials and present-buying boomer grandparents who did their own toy shopping there back in the day. Retail brands may be heavily tarnished in the financial and business sectors but it’s amazing how resilient they remain with shoppers with long memories. How else to explain the endless series of zombie brands that continue to be bought up and brought back to life?

• Unlike retail brands in sectors like apparel and consumer electronics that died because of new competition, there still is no national toy retailer and while Amazon AMZN , Walmart WMT and Target TGT have gained most of the former Toys market share, nobody has come along to fill the specialty role in the category. And even though it remains a highly seasonal business, the original Toys model proved you could drive decent revenue the other 11 months of the year.

• While nobody’s talking about additional physical stores, the Toys relaunch comes in the context of an ongoing international business, a continuing e-commerce operation and a new deal to put Toys shops within up to 400 Macy’s M stores starting next year. Unlike the last attempt to restart the brand which featured essentially two isolated units in malls 1600 miles apart, the Toys brand will be more prominent through the Macy’s connection even if the rollout of additional free-standing stores is slow or limited.

And then there are the minuses:

• The most obvious question to ask is why would they wait until two weeks before Christmas to open a store like this? Yes, we know about supply chain issues and labor shortages, but c’mon: a good toy store will do a wildly disproportionate percentage of its overall sales in the five weeks from Thanksgiving until the end of the year and you’d have to pull out all stops to be open for as long of this period as possible. How could they not work this out better and what does that day about their overall ability to execute this plan?

• As much as the name still means something, the question remains exactly what. People remembered the Woolworth name or the Montgomery Ward name but that didn’t mean they wanted to shop there. Yes, no specialty operation has come along in the toy space but Amazon, Walmart and Target are fierce competitors who have aggressively moved into this space and are unlikely to back off anytime soon.

• If the new Toys is going to be a hands-on shopping experience, can they actually pull it off? The last round of TRU stores in New Jersey and Houston tried that route and even in its original state, there was a very interactive store in Times Square with an indoor Ferris wheel and all kinds of shopping experiences. Neither was enough. And if you can ride a real roller coaster or go down a water chute next door will these in-store experiences be enough?

• Finally, there’s the viability of American Dream itself. The complex – to go for the easy punchline – has been a nightmare for a series of owners and has a long way to go to be considered successful. No matter how good the Toys store inside is, the overall mall has to work and there’s no proof yet that’s going to happen. What’s there is pretty good but for the time being there isn’t enough there there to guarantee it will work.

This is the point of the story where the humble writer brings out the Fitzgerald line about there being no second acts in life. Over the years Richard Nixon, Aerosmith and Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup during a pandemic have all disproved that theory.

But a third act? For Toys “R”Us, it will certainly not be…wait for it…child’s play.

The Tycoon Herald