You don't know what you've got until it's gone, people say.
But sometimes, that's not about loss. Sometimes it's about opportunity.
Case in point: Toys 'R' Us.
If you're a Millennial, Toys 'R' Us likely had a special place in your heart as a kid. The company was a category killer: For a time, it was the leading toy seller in America, by far.
Its founder, Charles Lazarus, was once the highest paid CEO in the country too. But then, a few things happened.
- First, Toys 'R' Us mishandled the early days of the internet, building a poorly functioning site and ultimately outsourcing its entire digital business to Amazon.
- Next, the company took on billions of dollars in debt as the result of a leveraged buyout, along with bad customer service and other symptoms of failure.
- Finally, to hear the old Toys 'R' Us tell the tale, it ran into a demographic buzzsaw: Millennials simply didn't grow up to have as many children of their own.
Ultimately, Toys 'R' Us filed for bankruptcy in 2017, and closed all of its stores in 2018.
People were sad. Requiems were written. (I might have written one of them.)
But a funny thing happened on the way to extinction. Toys 'R' Us's intellectual property was up for grabs during the bankruptcy, and it ultimately wound up in the hands of WHP Global, which specializes in acquiring beloved but mismanaged brands.
Over the past year or so, Toys 'R' Us has rolled out a series of plans to keep its brand alive in America, and engage its most devoted fans. Among other things:
- It teamed up with Macy's on a new digital business.
- It opened a giant flagship location at the mammoth American Dream Mall in New Jersey, right outside of New York.
- Most recently, it announced this week that it's working with Macy's on a plan to open Toys 'R' Us shops-within-a-store in all 509 Macy's locations across America between now and October -- just in time for this year's holiday shopping..
Now, I don't know about you, but I'll root for Toys 'R' Us to succeed, simply because I think it would be a good thing for a lot of other American businesses. And because I think it will make some people happy.
Example: When the big Toys 'R' Us opened in New Jersey, a customer in her 40s told The New York Times that she'd awakened at 7 a.m. and driven from Baltimore for the occasion. ("This has got to be heaven," she said.)
But I'm also interested in what the Toys 'R' Us experience suggests about other opportunities that might exist for businesses like yours -- and chances to leverage nostalgia and abandoned brands.
Nostalgia is a powerful force. People feel their attachment to some brands and experiences deeply, even if they don't always remember them accurately.
Granted, maybe you're not in a position to raise hundreds of millions of dollars like WHP Global did, and seek out well-known national or international brands. But that doesn't mean you can't leverage the idea on another scale in your industry.
- Can you take over a foundering competitor, or hire away employees who have created effective relationships?
- Can you brand your company to take advantage of people's emotional attachment to a place, a time, or a work of art or music?
- Can you make the change, and then promote it as a story that's less about your company's success, and instead about giving customers the chance to experience once more the things they remember fondly?
Find a way to do that, and you've found something powerful.
"We didn't create the brand, and we're not changing it," Yehuda Shmidman, CEO of WHP Global, told the Times. "All we're doing is bringing it back to Americans who have been yearning for it."