RIP Toys R Us… and a Final Lesson From Geoffrey

RIP Toys R Us… and a Final Lesson From Geoffrey Photo courtesy of Coleman Communications

By Michael P Coleman

“I’m a Toys R Us kid!”

You remember the jingle.  For years, Toys R Us’ ubiquitous ad campaign was music to the ears of children worldwide, while being an annual reminder to parents that Christmas was right around the corner.  To at least a generation of kids, Geoffrey, the company’s gangly spokes-giraffe, was almost as recognizable as Mickey Mouse. 

toysrus giraffeSoon, we’ll be filing those memories away for good, as Geoffrey’s headed to that great toy chest in the sky.  Just in case you haven’t heard, Toys R Us will soon be closing all of their US stores. 

The morning I heard about the company’s inability to emerge from bankruptcy protection, I found myself wistful.  But as he fades from view, Geoffrey has a final lesson for all of us — if we’re willing to hear it. 

My working middle-class family reserved trips to Toys R Us for special occasions:  birthdays, Christmas, and those weekends when we’d done an extra good job cutting my Grandma’s handful of acres of grass, just outside of Detroit.  After a quick stop at McDonalds, we’d head a few miles to the nearest Toys R Us store.  I could have spent hours there deciding how I’d spend the $5 I’d earned for a hard afternoon’s work.  My biggest decision was which Mego doll — well, boys called them “action figures” — would join my burgeoning Justice League collection. 

A couple of decades later, as I raised my own kids, I kept that tradition, taking them to Toys R Us as a special treat.  I’ll never forget the Christmas that the chain saved Santa’s behind with a special-order Talk Boy (the handheld cassette recorder from the feature film Home Alone).  My eldest had to have it that year, and the toy was sold out across the country.  A few years later, a Toys R Us employee I’ll never forget evoked a Christmas Eve cheer from me as he handed me one of the scant number of Tickle Me Elmos that the store had received.  Tickle Me Elmo was that year’s “must have” toy. I’d promised one to my little one, but our family’s name was buried on a wait list of hundreds of families, all with similar stories and longing children.

Soon thereafter, an invention we initially called “the world wide web” beckoned, and with it, toy-buying life (and retail in general) changed.  Along with Blockbuster Video, Borders, Circuit City and others, Toys R Us faced a competitor with a seemingly-endless inventory which was just a couple of clicks away from their core consumers.  That competitor, Amazon, also teased the promise of home delivery. 

And herein lies Geoffrey’s final lesson to us:  Toys R Us failed to respond quickly enough to change. 

Instead of bolstering their own web presence and pricing themselves competitively, Toys R Us floundered and let Amazon steal their business.  What the online giant didn’t take, other brick and mortar retailers like Target and Walmart did, offering popular toys as loss-leaders last Christmas season, after they’d smelled Geoffrey’s blood in the water. 

The retail landscape — and the world — had changed, but Toys R Us tried to sell toys the same way they had when the company launched In the 1950s, even after their consumers started carrying the key to Amazon’s front door — a smartphone — in their pockets and purses. 

It’s a great metaphor for life:  you have to be ready — physically, mentally, and perhaps most importantly, emotionally — to respond to change in your life.  “Change” is life’s only constant, and if you aren’t able to adapt and roll with it, in your personal and professional lives, you’ll find yourself joining dinosaurs like home video stores, bookstores, and now toy stores: shadows of a past that’s far in the rear view mirror. 

I visited Toys R Us as I prepared to write this column.  I bought a few vintage games — Monopoly, Life, and Scrabble among them — that I’ll play with the grandchildren I hope to have one day.  And I’ll always remember Geoffrey.  No matter how old or gray I get, I’ll always be a Toys R Us kid.

But THIS kid will also, always, be ready to bob, weave, and adapt to changes around him.  Unlike that gangly pitch-giraffe that I loved so much as a kid, THIS “Geoffrey” plans to be around for a long, long time. 


 Connect with Sacramento-based freelancer Michael P Coleman at michaelpcoleman.com or follow him on Twitter:  @ColemanMichaelP.