Hearing that Toys "R" Us was going out of business, my youngest daughter Colette decided to take her life savings (primarily consisting of this week's allowance) and make the most of the retailer's financial troubles. She assumed there would be a sale, because, as she put it, "It's like economics, bro."
Unfortunately for her, it became immediately apparent that the going-out-of-business sale at our local Toys "R" Us had yet to get underway.
The overpriced toys, dirty tile floors and bathrooms, and the miserable look of the employee behind the counter also made something else apparent:
Amazon might have put the final nail in the giraffe-colored coffin that contains the corpse of what once was Toys "R" Us, but Amazon didn't build the coffin.
In other words, Toys "R" Us managed to make shopping for toys an experience wholly devoid of anything resembling, well, an actual experience. It was merely a giant, dirty box selling cheap plastic that clogs up hallways and bedrooms until parents, like my wife and I, finally lose our minds and make good on our threat to throw those toys in the trash. And it was selling that cheap plastic at a significant markup over other giant, dirty boxes like Walmart.
It was a given that Toys "R" Us would suck the hygiene out of toy shopping. When your target market thinks not brushing their teeth for three weeks is an act of resistance against their corrupt oppressors, things are bound to get a little nasty.
But to suck the fun out of looking for an Ultimate Warrior action figure?
I literally did not know you could do that.
(For the record, I was the one looking to relive my own childhood Toys 'R' Us experiences via the Ultimate Warrior, not my daughter.)
When I was a child, Toys "R" Us had a virtual lock on the market and didn't have to be anything other than a typical big box store. However, times have changed. In an era where shopper experience matters, Toys "R" Us did not create an experience worth having. It was merely a venue to conduct a transaction. So is Amazon, and you can buy Ultimate Warrior toys from Jeff Bezos without ever having to worry about whether that kid's cough is just a cough, or the first red dot on the map in the real-life version of Outbreak.
Seriously though, it wasn't just the filth, or the overpriced toys, or the general feeling of hopelessness that struck me on my visit to the store. I work in economic development, and my county--like many counties--is heavily dependent on retail sales tax. Regardless of my opinion of Toys "R" Us, the loss of a big box store is a financial loss to my community.
That said, if our local economies depend on low-wage employees who clearly hate their job selling plastic crap made by low-wage foreign labor, then the death of the retail-based economy is not a bad thing. The transition to a different economic model will be painful, but it is more than just necessary.
Just because we don't know what the future looks like doesn't mean that what comes next will be bad. It's sort of like The Shawshank Redemption. Andy Dufresne didn't know what his future would be like, but he was hopeful that it would be better. Hope, Andy said, is "a good thing, maybe the best of things."
I don't know what comes next for communities dependent on retail sales tax, but I do know that the low-wage, disposable, retail-driven economy exemplified by stores like Toys "R" Us is, like Shawshank Prison was for Andy Dufresne, the drab cage our communities need to escape from.