If at first you don’t succeed, the saying goes, try, try again. Toys “R” Us is back in business after filing bankruptcy in 2017. This time, the former toy giant is peddling playtime over playthings.
In New Jersey, eight-year-old Jaelyn Farrell climbs a tree fort, plays in fake sand, and pushes a toy car. She isn’t at a playground. She’s at the mall—inside a new Toys “R” Us.
The store “has cool stuff,” says Jaelyn. “Little kids, or big kids like my age, can play in here.”
The Bible’s advice in 1 Thessalonians 5:21 probably isn’t referring to toys or playtime. Still, it makes for a good life principle: “Test everything; hold fast what is good.” And it’s the base idea for a new generation of toy stores competing for the multi-million-dollar U.S. toy market.
This past holiday season, the Toys “R” Us chain started over. The revamped brand wants to get kids playing—in hopes that parents will start buying again.
Today, Toys “R” Us has only two stores, one in New Jersey and another in Houston. It plans eight more in 2020.
The old Toys “R” Us had some fun events to attract kids, but toy stock was king. Boxes of dolls, trucks, blocks were stacked floor-to-ceiling. New stores are much smaller than the old ones. Employees unwrap toys for children to examine, and they emphasize hands-on experiences. For example, in the New Jersey store, kids shoot Nerf blasters. They sit in a circle for story time.
Toys “R” Us isn’t alone in highlighting playtime. Another toy brand, FAO Schwarz, has brought back its famous floor piano. Kids skip and jump on giant keys to play tunes. It also added a toy grocery store. There, kids shop for artificial produce using small carts. There’s even a Barbie doll fashion parlor. Dolls get styled for $75 per session.
A new toy chain called Camp boasts a scooter racetrack and a room devoted to crafts and music.
Michael Goldstein, former CEO of Toys “R” Us, serves on the Camp board of directors. He knows toy buying has changed. He says, “We want people to come to our stores and have a [rewarding] experience.”
Elizabeth Sorio’s three-year-old twins played with robots while she shopped at the New Jersey Toys “R” Us. She enjoyed how the store let her kids try the toys.
Richard Barry heads Tru Kids Brands, the Toys “R” Us parent company. He sees experiences like the Sorios’ as key. “We sell toys,” he says, “but what the kids really want is play.”