Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The Time of Toy Stores

Today Toys "R" Us announced that it will be closing 182 stores, including the one nearby where I live. It's not surprising, of course, as the company did file for bankruptcy last year and it is certainly not the only retail business struggling as more and more people shop online. Admittedly, I rarely go to toy stores any longer but then I don't have any children and have to resist collecting action figures so it's beneficial to my health to avoid them (I'm being sarcastic of course, I can easily resist, really, I can!). My last visit to a Toys "R" Us was a few years ago when I was looking for a gift for my nephew and the store simply didn't feel the same as when I was younger. I don't believe it was because of my age either, it was just the arrangement of that particular store. The aisles were short in length and height, and I found the store confusing to navigate. When I was a kid the store I frequented had long aisles that stretched from the front of the store all the way to the back wall, you could stand there in awe as the stacks of toys seemed to go on forever.

While 182 certainly isn't every store, one has to wonder how long the company will be able to stay in business and if the time of toy stores is at an end. It is unfortunate that someday kids will no longer be able to experience the joy of wandering through a store with wall-to-wall toys. Sure, stores like Target sell toys but it's really not the same. Toys "R" Us' main competitor was once Kay Bee Toys (aka KB Toys) but that shuttered in 2009. KB was certainly a much smaller store and didn't carry the large toys or accessories; it was primarily a store found in shopping malls and typically had higher prices than stand-alone stores, likely due to the high cost of renting space in a mall. It did operate non-mall stores called Toy Works that were bigger than a KB store and smaller than a Toys "R" Us, and sold a lot of heavily discounted toys. I have fond memories of Toy Works as I worked at one for a year and a half during college. If by chance you shopped at the Toy Works in the Sand Hill Plaza in Newtown, CT between the summer of '94 and Christmas '95 I might have assisted you -- I'd have been the guy that had all the answers. Well, that's if you were asking about video games or action figures, though I did pride myself on knowing at least a bit about all toys.

Some other memories from my time at Toy Works include Power Rangers, bicycle sales, and the PlayStation. Power Rangers were absolutely huge back then, rivaling the debut of the Cabbage Patch Kids in the '80s. When Power Rangers appeared in the Sunday flyer we'd get lines outside the store before opening. Once the line was nearly the length of the whole plaza which was about 10 small stores in one direction before the plaza turned 90 degrees and the line continued. We dumped all of the action figures in plastic kiddie pools and let people go at it -- it was nuts! Selling bicycles, on the other hand, was one of the worst parts of the job. During the big summer sale employees had to roll them all out to the sidewalk before opening and at closing roll them all back in. Plus, I just didn't know much about bikes so I struggled to answer questions. My store did exceed at bike sales in 1995 though, top in the region I believe.

Employees got a mug and t-shirt for being the top store in
bicycle sales.

KB was one of the retailers that did not carry the Sega Saturn, in large part because Sega put it in Toys "R" Us stores during a surprise early launch, but also because the Sega CD and the 32X did not instill confidence in Sega's future products. Therefore, we were pushing the PlayStation hard as that was to be the big video game system for the holiday '95 season. Being a Sega fan I had a hard time believing Sony could compete with Nintendo and Sega but that's just what it did. During the summer of '95 I had to listen to a PlayStation demo running in the front of the store all day, every day. What I remember most is Battle Arena Toshinden's Sofia shouting, though I'm sure there were other games appearing in the endless loop, they just weren't as loud. I believe we only received three pre-orders for the console, not that it mattered since it sold out and we couldn't keep the games in stock.

Working at Toy Works also had a great perk: 25% off toys and 10% off video games! It really was a fun job and I missed it after I left when I moved out of state in 1996. I did not visit Connecticut again until 2010 so the store was gone by that point. I didn't own a camera then either so no pictures of the store or the friends I made there, and unfortunately, I lost touch with everyone as well. After graduating from college I did actually work in a Toys "R" Us briefly as holiday help at the video game counter while looking for more permanent work. Believe it or not, there was no employee discount (I think they added one later) and working the holiday season there wasn't so great. Working a full holiday season at Toy Works was insane though also exciting as piles and piles of toys would get delivered much more frequently. Of course, throughout the '80s, '90s, and into the 2000s there were other toy stores too though none as big as Toys "R" Us or KB, and the only other one I can really remember is Child World which closed in 1992. 

 A plastic Child World cup featuring the mascot Peter Panda.
The company also operated Children's Palace stores.

I'll end this post with a fitting image I was able to take from Google Maps. Google apparently filmed the Sand Hill Plaza shortly after Toy Works closed in 2008.

This is the sad, empty shell of the Newtown Toy Works that I worked
at. There was a smaller store or two between Toy Works and the
 building jutting out in the background which is a grocery store.

UPDATE 3/15/18: When I first wrote this post it was in regards to 182 Toys "R" Us stores closing but now the retailer is going out of business and closing every single store. I also read an article today about how the company had a massive amount of debt well before became extremely successful, and that Walmart was the biggest competitor, having more than double the sales of Toys "R" Us.

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