PARAMUS, NJ – Jaelyn Farrell climbed into a tree fort, played in fake sand and pushed around a “Paw Patrol” toy car.
But the 8-year-old wasn't at a playground or a friend's house. She was at the mall in a new Toys R Us. The chain, relaunched for this holiday shopping season after going out of business in 2018, is trying to get kids playing in the hopes that parents will get buying again.
The New Jersey store “has cool stuff,” said Jaelyn during an outing with her dad and little brother. "Little kids, or big kids like my age, can play in here.”
Toy stores have long offered activities and interactive elements, like the floor piano at FAO Schwarz that Tom Hanks danced on in “Big.” Toys R Us, in its heyday, drew crowds for its Pokemon tournaments, but its appeal faded with Amazon's rise.
Now a new generation of toy stores hopes to capitalize on the demise of the old Toys R Us by emphasizing playtime. They are fighting for a chunk of the $28 billion U.S. toy market, which today is spent mostly at Amazon, Walmart and Target.
Richard Barry, head of Toys R Us' new parent company, thinks about $2 billion of that market is up for grabs.
“We sell toys," Barry said. “But what the kids really want is play.”
The revamped Toys R Us today consists of just two stores, the New Jersey one and another in Houston, although it plans eight stores in 2020. They are one-seventh of the size of the old stores and emphasize hands-on experiences.
While the old Toys R Us had fun events to draw in kids, merchandise was still king, with toys stacked to the ceiling. The new Toys R Us itself unwraps the toys so that kids can try them out. In the New Jersey store, kids shot Nerf blasters and sat in a circle for story time while Geoffrey, the chain's mascot, roamed around.
When another iconic toy brand, FAO Schwarz, opened a store in New York in 2018, three years after shuttering its 5th Avenue flagship, it brought back the famous floor piano and added a toy grocery store where kids can shop for artificial produce, complete with small carts, and a Barbie doll fashion parlor that charges $75 for a styling session.
A new chain, Camp, has a scooter race track and a room devoted to arts and crafts and musical performances. At a New York store, children ran around and sat on the floor and at tables playing with toys, while store workers sang songs. To amp up the theatrics, both FAO Schwarz and Camp hire actors as staff.
"Amazon and other online sellers are dramatically changing retail and it will only get more difficult for brick and mortar stores to compete," said Michael Goldstein, the former CEO of Toys R Us who now sits on the board of Camp. "We want people to come to our stores and have a gratifying experience."'
Experiences inside a shop are an increasingly important marketing tool as television audiences shrink and kids see fewer TV ads, said toy marketing consultant Marc Rosenberg.
While playtime makes sense for selling toys, it's not just toy stores that are focusing on activities. Department stores like Macy's are also trying to give shoppers more reason to spend time — and money — in their stores rather than shop online.
Elizabeth Sorio, of Park Ridge, N.J., watched her 3-year-old twin boys play with robot toys and an interactive mirror as she shopped for Christmas gifts at the New Jersey Toys R Us. She appreciated the way the store let her kids test out the toys.
“It's easier for us to know what they like if they actually play with it," Sorio said, recalling the frustration of buying her kids "something they think they like and they have no interest."
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