It's official, or at least close to it: Toys R Us is almost certainly closing its doors forever. They'll be in court perhaps as soon as today, reports say, filing a plan to liquidate their assets and shut down all 800 of the company's stores.

It's a sad story when almost any entrepreneurial adventure winds down--whether it's a small side hustle that never quite gets off the ground or an organization like this one, which grew from a single store to one of the world's 250 biggest companies and changed an industry.

So while we hope there's some kind of last-minute miracle to keep it alive, and perhaps save 10,000 jobs, let's take two quick minutes (estimated time to read this article) to recap Toys R Us--and the inspiration any aspiring entrepreneur should take away from it. 

The founder.

This all grew out of a small children's furniture store that founder Charles Lazarus launched in 1948. He was a 25-year-old World War II veteran whose ambition at the time, like many of his peers, was simply to start a business that would let him start a family.

"Everybody I met in the service said they were going to go home and get married and have children," he said in a family documentary (clip embedded below). 

To Lazarus, starting families meant buying baby furniture.

The strategy.

Spend any time in Washington, D.C.? Store No. 1, originally called Children's Bargain Town, was at 2461 18th St. NW, in Adams Morgan. Today, that's the address of an iconic bar called Madam's Organ. So if you want to toast the memory of Toys R Us, that's the place to go.

It took 10 years for Lazarus to develop his strategy and come up with the lasting name, Toys R Us. In 1957, he moved operations to Maryland, and capitalized on the baby boom. 

"We got in the toy business by pure accident," Lazarus said, when customers started asking for them. Ultimately, he saw toys as a much better business than furniture. Parents who had multiple children might buy only one crib or high chair--but they couldn't stop buying toys for their kids.

His store model became, like a supermarket, but for toys--" Long aisles. Products stacked high. Variety. Big enough to get products at discounts," as the Washington Post put it.

The category killer.

Lazarus had been a cryptologist in the military, and his technical background prompted him to take Toys R Us into the computer age long before most other companies did. ("Toys R Us is a unique operation... Their superb controls and information systems are unrivaled in the industry," is how a retail analyst described the company back in 1982.) 

Eventually, it grew to become one of the first big-box chain retailers, and a category killer that for a time was by far the leading seller of toys in America. And Lazarus, who died in 2007, was one of the small cadre of big company CEOs in history who stayed at the helm from founding through acquisition and IPO.

Of course, competitors eventually arose, and by 1998, WalMart sold more toys than Toys R Us. The company soldiered on for another 20 years before filing for Chapter 11 last year, and reportedly is on the cusp of liquidation now.

The kids.

As Lazarus points out in his family video, toys are something people buy because they want to--to make a child happy--but they're not necessities. So his company became a pioneer in working with toy manufacturers to create demand. 

Part of that meant working on advertising campaigns that directed people to Toys R Us, and part of it meant getting exclusive early releases of products before other competitors.

Even if you haven't stepped foot inside a Toys R Us in years--maybe you don't have kids, or else maybe you've been shopping for them elsewhere--I'll bet you associate two things with it: the jingle and Geoffrey the giraffe.

Also, as Lazarus once said in an interview, "Over the years, I have taught children to say, 'I need it!' rather than, 'I want it!' But on the other hand, nobody really has to buy the product."

The demise.

The story is playing out across retail, with consolidation and online buying habits upending how people shop. Even before it officially closes forever--again, barring a miracle--Toys R Us already seems like a bit of a relic.

As the company seems about to fade into the dark night, it's worth remembering that it saw its original success because of innovation and seizing opportunity--and perhaps it's only natural that others doing the same thing will replace it.

RIP, Toys R Us. You had a heck of a run.
 

Published on: Mar 14, 2018
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