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Toys R Us
(BigStock Photo)

Commentary: Reports suggesting that Toys R Us and its 800 remaining stores may not be long for this retail world arrived for many this weekend like a Lego stuck to the bottom of a bare foot. Fans of the longtime chain suggested, via social media, that a piece of their childhood would die along with the iconic brand.

Toys R Us filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy back in September, and now it looks like a failure to make a go of it will lead to store closures and liquidation sales, possibly starting this week.

It always surprises me when the internet speaks up for something that I stopped thinking about sometime before the internet. Sure, as a kid in the 1970s and 80s, I can remember the colorful Toys R Us logo slapped on the facade of a big box, anchoring some suburban shopping plaza. Along the way I may have even purchased a few toys inside.

But I don’t blame the rise of online shopping and Amazon for eventually turning me off to stores like Toys R Us. While many parents and people who are just kids at heart have turned to the e-commerce giant for their toy needs, it’s still possible to support independent retailers who offer a unique selection — and actual human interaction.

Crying doll
A crying doll GIF as seen in a Facebook comment about Toys R Us. (Giphy Image)

The United States is the world’s largest toy market, according to information from The NPD Group, which said toy sales in the U.S. grew 1 percent in 2017 to $20.7 billion. Toys R Us has about 15 percent of that market share, but is still about to die thanks in large part to the enormous debt it got saddled with after a leverage buyout in 2005.

toy sales growth
(NPD Group Graphic)

“If Toys R Us closes, where will shoppers go?” asked USA Today in a headline on Sunday, which appears to have been written 40 years ago. If the billions spent on toys at Toys R Us doesn’t shift over to Amazon or Walmart or Target, certainly there are plenty of small toy stores in neighborhoods and cities across the country that would welcome the business.

A Marketplace story in December supported that claim, saying that independent toy stores have actually found ways to compete against big chains and Amazon. The battle is waged and and in some cases won not by competing on price, but with the quality of the merchandise, or through efforts to make the stores gathering places with events such as puppet shows or book signings.

But scrolling through Twitter just serves to amplify the immense battle small retailers face when trying to stay relevant in 2018. While nostalgia for a onetime touchstone such as Toys R Us is all fine and good, people with a smart phone in front of their face should be smarter about how easy it is to shop somewhere besides the biggest box on the block.

And if you really think screens have led to a world in which kids don’t want to play with physical toys anymore, it’s your own sense of imagination that could use a reboot.

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