Hard as it may be to imagine today, Toys R Us was once a revolutionary company.
From its origins in 1948 when founder Charles Lazarus opened what was originally a children’s furniture store, Toys R Us blazed a trail of retail firsts that were testament to entrepreneurial flair and affinity with consumers.
Toys R Us was the first specialist chain to make its category a seasonless business – toy sales had previously been concentrated into a short Christmas selling period dominated by department stores.
All-year-round sales were a mouthwatering prospect for toy manufacturers, and it was achieved by adopting a category-killing, supermarket-style self-service approach.
It was completely in tune with the times. Lazarus listened to veterans, home from the war, and picked up on their desire to settle down, have families and live the American dream.
Lazarus spoke about having to “think like a child” and adopt a child’s-eye view, recalling how he was advised to lie on the floor to get a kid’s perspective.
Can you imagine the bosses of the hidebound retailer which has just gone bust doing that? Maybe I’m wrong, but I suspect they’d be worried about crumpling their suits.
But what if Toys R Us had never stopped being revolutionary? What if it had kept focused on relevance and frequently asked: ‘If the business were being launched today, what’s different about consumers, what’s different about the world and, therefore, what should be different about us?’
When it undertook a CVA late last year, Toys R Us blamed its big-box stores as one of its problems.
“With more imagination, Toys R Us could have found new purpose had it acted far earlier to address deep-seated, fundamental problems”
Retail conditions are tough, of that there’s no doubt. The latest BRC data showed that in the three months to the end of February, in-store sales of products other than food slid 3.3% like-for-like. That’s worse than the overall non-food decline over that period of 1.1%.
However, some retailers have shown that big sheds have not yet outlived their purpose, as long as the offer is right. Tesco’s Extra stores, for instance, have been achieving “particularly strong growth” according to the latest Kantar grocery market data.
So perhaps, with more imagination, Toys R Us could have found new purpose had it acted far earlier to address deep-seated, fundamental problems.
The lesson surely is that retailers can never stand still. And it’s a lesson reinforced every day by Amazon, which never stops experimenting and working out what will click with consumers in future.
Much of what Amazon does never moves out of the experimental phase, but there’s always so much going on that it backs plenty of winners, such as its Prime membership scheme.
Amazon is now potentially transforming itself as it backs voice as the medium of the future, rather than remaining the ‘website’ that many think of it as today.
It’s an approach that retailers more widely need to adopt if they want to avoid following in the footsteps of Toys R Us by failing to move with the times.
Watch Charles Lazarus talking about the creation of Toys R Us here:
Work to do on equality
In the run-up to International Women’s Day, retailers have been making headlines because of pay differentials.
Some even face legal action on the matter.
Retail actually has much to be proud of over many years when it comes to ensuring greater equality between the sexes – through, for instance, the opportunities it has created for flexible working – but there’s clearly much still to be done.
Retailers are enthusiastically backing Retail Week’s Be Inspired initiative to develop the next generation of women leaders through mentoring and insights from role models.
At our next event you can hear from leaders such as Ann Summers chief executive Jacqueline Gold, Notonthehighstreet co-founder Holly Tucker, Boden boss Jill Easterbrook, and the global president of Mars Foods, Fiona Dawson.
There is a free Be Inspired community platform too here.
It’s not just the high street that’s changing, it’s company cultures too. Why not be part of it?