Toys R Us is back! … Again.
The perennial comeback of the toy retail brand is becoming a regular feature of life following the defunct toy store chain's liquidation in 2018.
The plan this time is to open Toys R Us-branded shop-in-shops in more than 400 Macy's stores. While the shops will bear the Toys R Us name and some of its iconography, Macy's will be in the driver's seat.
According to a Macy's spokesperson, the retailer will lead the merchandising operation for the shop-in-shops while Toys R Us executives will add "support and guidance on toy and product trends." Unlike the two stores the Toys R Us brand opened with b8ta in 2019, which essentially rented out space to vendors and eschewed inventory, Macy's will own the inventory just like most other retailers with their merchandise.
Macy's wouldn't say how the partnership was formed or give any details on the financial arrangement.
Regardless of specifics, the appearance of the shops next year would mark the biggest comeback to date for the Toys R Us brand since the toy chain wound down. It will also mark Macy's largest splash in the toy category in recent memory. The question for both sides is, does any of that matter?
For the category as a whole, maybe not so much. "It's never a bad thing for more retailers to be carrying more toys," said D.A. Davidson senior research analyst Linda Bolton Weiser. "But it's not going to move the needle. Demand and consumption of toys is what it is and will be what it will be. I don't think having that having the toys in 400 Macy's is going to change the consumption profile."
For the Toys R Us brand, though, this may be its last, best chance at continued relevance in the U.S. For Macy's, the partnership could be a growth category and traffic driver — two things the retailer is in perpetual need of — if it can pull it off.
'Two storied retail brands'
From the outside, with Macy's running the merchandising operation, the arrangement looks like the sorts of licensing relationships favored by asset-light intellectual property aggregators like Authentic Brands, Iconix Brands and others. Which comes as no surprise given the latest incarnation of Toys R Us.
In March, Tru Kids — the company formed to house Toys R Us' IP after the retailer's liquidation — announced it had sold a controlling stake to WHP Global, which over the past roughly two years has picked up the Anne Klein and Joseph Abboud apparel brands.
WHP is backed by Oaktree Capital, an investment firm that has both owned and lent to retail companies, including the old Toys R Us, and is run by CEO Yehuda Shmidman, who previously was CEO of Sequential Brands and COO of Iconix. Shmidman is now listed as the chairman and CEO of the Toys R Us brand as well.
Until recently, the TRU kids CEO role was filled by Richard Barry, who was the chief merchandiser for Toys R Us when it was a chain store. Barry's profile now lists the former Toys R Us merchant as CEO emeritus of Tru Kids and an independent consultant. Meanwhile, WHP management includes two other Toys R Us veterans, Matthew Finigan and Jamie Uitdenhowen.
Firms like Authentic Brands and Iconix are primarily marketers and intellectual property owners, relying on third-party operators to pay royalties and do the making, retailing and even designing of goods.
Macy's, meanwhile as the largest remaining department store chain, could be in a position to reinvent both itself, in a small way, and the Toys R Us brand as it builds out the shop-in-shops. At the same time, the retailer could benefit from WHP's marketing efforts, and vice versa. In an August conference call, Macy's CEO Jeff Gennette hinted that there will be Toys R Us iconography at the department store retailer's annual Thanksgiving Day parade.
"They have the real potential to celebrate these two storied retail brands," said James Zahn, deputy editor of the trade publication The Toy Book. "It's kind of cliche, but their old slogan was 'the magic of Macy's.' And you think of 'Miracle on 34th Street', and Santa Claus meets Geoffrey the Giraffe."
Jay Foreman, CEO of the toy company Basic Fun, said, "Toys R Us is now seen as a mid-tier to upper-tier brand." That would put it roughly in the same league as Macy's, which is trading on its partner's name with the shop-in-shops. "In a small way, I think they can replicate it," Foreman said, referring to Toys R Us' vanished retail presence. "I think the brand name is the key."
A changing toy category
In fall 2017, Toys R Us was making its pitch to the world for why it needed to exist. That is a useful exercise for any business, but it is a crucial argument for a retailer in bankruptcy — which Toys R Us was at the time — trying to win the support of vendors, lenders, customers and bankruptcy court.
As the last national toy store chain, Toys R Us executives and attorneys argued that the company was essential as a toy showroom. The retailer, alone, provided something the market desperately needed.
"You don't get this customer service at Walmart, you don't get this customer experience at Target, you certainly don't get this customer experience on your smartphone," one of Toys R Us' attorneys said at the time.
"We are continuing to provide customers outstanding service whenever, wherever and however they want to shop with us — just as we have for the past 70 years and will continue to do for decades into the future," then-CEO Dave Brandon reassured everyone at the time.
"Life goes on, and people still need to buy toys for their kids."
Linda Bolton Weiser
D.A. Davidson Senior Research Analyst
Actually, the retailer's service and operations had been deteriorating over the preceding two decades. And even as the last retailer of its kind, it turns out Toys R Us wasn't as necessary to the toy market as many assumed. Walmart, Target and Amazon — powerhouses that stole market share from Toys R Us in the years leading up to its death — have taken over much of the market.
And the market has expanded in Toys R Us' absence, despite the loss of a huge retail channel, which before it went into bankruptcy consisted of more than 350 toy stores and millions of square feet of store space in the U.S.
The pandemic has given an extra boost to the category. On top of a surge last year, toy sales grew another 15% year over year in the first half of 2021, and have grown 28% from 2019, according to NPD Group.
"The pandemic changed things in the sense that it boosted toy demand, it shifted more toward internet purchasing," Weiser said. "The industry recovered post-Toys R Us. Life goes on, and people still need to buy toys for their kids."
Meanwhile, the Toys R Us brand's attempts at a comeback have not amounted to much. Since liquidating its stores, the Toys R Us brand, which the retailer's lenders initially took ownership of, has launched experiential pop-ups, as well as an online collaboration with Target, and then Amazon. It opened its own stores in 2019 through a joint venture with b8ta. Both stores, hit hard by the pandemic, closed early this year.
Since 2018, Toys R Us' store count has gone from more than 700 (including its Babies R Us stores) to zero, to two, and now back to zero. Next year the number could be more than 400 through the Macy's partnership.
Can Toys R Us launch a comeback?
When it comes to working with toymakers, there may be an advantage for Macy's in not being Toys R Us.
Vendors still have vivid, sometimes bitter, memories of how the Toys R Us bankruptcy played out. Collectively, Toys R Us suppliers lost of hundreds of millions of dollars in unpaid purchases by the retailer that it made on credit terms in the weeks and months before announcing suddenly it was headed for liquidation. In a lawsuit still being litigated, creditors to the toy chain accused former executives, including Tru Kids' Barry, of fraudulent behavior.
For Macy's, toys hold the promise of a growth category for a retailer that has been struggling for years to grow its sales and customer base.
Gennette told analysts in August that the company at present has a "quite small" market share in the category. The retailer has seen some success in toys through its Backstage off-price business, which helped seed the Toys R Us partnership. Gennette has called toys a "standout" category for Macy's, growing fast from its limited starting point. With the Toys R Us team-up, Gennette said Macy's toy business could expand fourfold.
Macy's will be competing against Walmart, Target and Amazon, the category's giants, who all played leading roles in Toys R Us' failure. But the retailer won't have to sell the volume of toys that those companies do for the partnership to be a success. And trying to compete with those companies on their own terms would probably doom the effort.
"It's sort of pointless to try to compete on price with like the Walmarts of the world especially during the holidays," Weiser said. "You try to be competitive enough, but price will not be your standout attraction. It's going to have to be something else. It's going to be that during the holidays that you're here at Macy's, doing your other holiday shopping, so here's where you can buy your toys."
For the department store chain, in other words, toys give customers another reason to come and to spend at its physical locations. Gennette singled out the under-40 set, millennials who grew up shopping as kids at the Toys R Us stores who now have children of their own.
How customers will react to the Toys R Us shops inside Macy's remains an unknown, as do most details about the actual shops. When asked, a Macy's spokesperson couldn't share specifics about how the shops will be staffed or when exactly they will roll out.
In the release, Macy's offered a skinny vision of what the shops could look like: "[C]ustomers will be welcomed by Geoffrey the Giraffe before discovering and playing across dedicated sections by age, interest and category, with interactive experiences, activation centers and iconic elements throughout."
The shops aren't set to roll out until next year. That means Macy's will miss out on the Christmas season, though Gennette hinted that there would, "to a limited degree in 2021," be some Toys R Us presence at Macy's this year. (The Macy's spokesperson wouldn't provide details.)
That is money left on the table for both parties, and it's another holiday season without the Toys R Us name playing a significant role. "Toys R Us is a valuable brand that loses value every single day that it's not in front of families," Zahn said.
But Macy's and Toys R Us also have to get the shops right, or it risks fizzling like past efforts. It's worth noting that this isn't the first time the two brands have teamed up. It's not even the first time Toys R Us shops have opened up inside Macy's stores. Some 25 Toys R Us pop-up shops inside Macy's stores were announced in 2012, without much seeming to come of it. The risk of launching too early with a weak offer is losing both shoppers new to buying Toys R Us for their kids and those who are loyal Toys R Us brand.
"The Macy's deal has some potential, but they need to do it in a completely different manner than they've done in the past," Zahn said. "They can't just slap a colorful sign on an assortment of uncurated toys with a giraffe and call it Toys R Us."