When Toys R Us Surrendered Its Story to Amazon

By March 27, 2018 No Comments

It was my go-to “Dad move” on a cold winter day when our kids were young. We went to Toys R Us. What better way to kill time than to let your kids roam the aisles of a warehouse packed from the floor to the sky with toys? For the kids, it seemed like we’d departed reality to spend an hour at the North Pole. For the parents, we got to be heroes and the hardest part of the effort probably was parking the car.

I remember one such visit to Toys R Us when my eldest, Sean, was three years old. I had my brother and my niece in tow. Sean was riding a tricycle down one of the cavernous aisles and he stopped for some reason, looked up at me, and said, “Daddy, I love you.”

“Awww,” said my brother, “that was really nice.”

“John,” I said, “don’t be fooled. Think about where we’re standing.”

Think of the power of the Toys R Us brand in the 1980s and 1990s. Toys R Us was synonymous with TOYS. What’s better than that? You had Geoffrey the giraffe. You had that distinctive, kid font in their logo. You had not only the subsidiary “Babies R Us,” but a thousand knock-off brands that leveraged the Toys R Us brand. Put any term in front of “R Us” and you were in business: Plumbers R Us, Cakes R Us, Sofas R Us. (Does anyone remember David Letterman walking into “Lamps R Us” and asking “What can you get here?”)

And you’ll hate me for this, but if I’m going to summon this from the recesses of my brain, I’m not going to suffer alone:

“I don’t want to grow up. I’m a Toys R Us kid. They got the best for so much less, you’ll really flip your lid. From bikes to trains to video games, they’re biggest toy store there is. Gee whiz. I don’t want to grow up ‘cuz maybe if I did, I wouldn’t be a Toys R Us kid.”

All those things should be my collective, unvarnished memory of Toys R Us, including a jingle’s unabashed assault on the English language. But they’re not. Instead, my lasting memory of Toys R Us is any given December 26th, standing at its customer service counter. I had the Hogwarts Lego set under my arm or maybe the Madden Xbox game. In either case, I was listening to a robotic store manager rattle off the store’s inflexible return and exchange policy. “No, I don’t have the receipt.” “No, I’m not going to call my mother-in-law to get the receipt.” And, eventually, “No, I won’t be returning to your store.”

Let’s just say that a company that never would have existed without Christmas did not build a lot of “Buddy the Elf” into its customer service training.

Fast forward 23 years or so and young Sean is about to get married. Sadly, we’re not talking about toys any more. Sean’s mom is looking for a dress for the wedding. Last week, she found one she thought she liked on Amazon. She bought it. Two days later it arrives at our door. She tried it on. “Nope, wrong color.” Back in the box it goes and yesterday, at 1:30pm, I dropped the dress off at our local post office. Last night, at 7:10pm, I got an email message from Amazon acknowledging that the dress had been received and a refund had been issued to our credit card.

Let that sink in for a moment. Less than six hours after I had put the dress in the mail, Amazon had processed the refund. Oh, and Amazon covered the cost of the return shipping.

How can any business compete with Amazon? They’re going to beat you on price. They’re going to beat you on selection. They’re going to beat you on convenience. And if they’re also going to beat you on service, what else do you have to work with?

It’s not hard to see how all of this conspired to doom

Toys R Us.

In the age of Amazon, you better know what makes you different, what makes you a better choice. Maybe it’s the customer experience that Toys R Us used to own, but squandered with an indifferent approach to customer service. Maybe it’s a human connection that is notably and purposely absent at Amazon.

Most definitely, it requires a powerful story, why doing business with you is better, more interesting, or more fun than succumbing to the faceless, heartless world of Amazon.

Can anyone really imagine a kid chirping, “I don’t want to grow up, I’m an Amazon kid…”


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