After Toys R Us filed for bankruptcy this fall — a move that was sudden and a surprise, if only for its timing — the toy retailer blitzed the media with a series of announcements about rebranding, online initiatives, holiday sales deals and new efforts to capitalize on stores and their importance to children as a toy showroom.
Despite its many new (and some familiar) initiatives, the retailer is still falling behind its mass merchant rivals on several key fronts. New data provided to Retail Dive shows the company still pricing online behind Amazon, Walmart and Target on popular toys, as the retailer has also lost favor with mothers of young children.
In bankruptcy court and a new media campaign, Toys R Us has presented itself as a place dear to children and parents, the last national toy showroom. But many of those stores could close. As the company looks to shutter underperforming or redundant stores — up to 200, according to recent reports — the problem of lost share could get worse, moving sales online, where Toys R Us lags in pricing, or to the retailer's mass merchant rivals.
And for the stores Toys R Us has left, some experts say the company has not offered customers enough reasons to shop in them.
Losing customers for life?
This year's holiday season may well be the most important in Toys R Us' nearly 70 years of existence. To be sure, the toy retailer lives and dies by the fourth quarter, every year, as it perennially makes 40% of its revenue during the period. But a bankrupt Toys R Us has to convince significant stakeholders and a judge that the company has value as an operating retailer. The company's fiscal year and even, potentially, its post-bankruptcy fate — not to mention multimillion dollar payouts to its executives — hinge on this year's holiday season.
And that holiday season could be in peril.
In October, Josh Sussberg, an attorney for the retailer with Kirkland & Ellis, told the judge overseeing Toys R Us' bankruptcy that the company was "continuing to fix our issues," investing in its business and working on a balance sheet restructuring "in conference rooms in the deep of night." Sussberg said then that the company's working "thesis" throughout the bankruptcy proceedings would be that Toys R Us is the only "toy showroom" of its reach. "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," he said.
What customers can get at Walmart, Target and on their smartphones (via Amazon, let's say) are lower prices. Toys R Us has for years been losing share to the merchants. Hobbling the company's ability to stay competitive on price are the hundreds of millions of dollars in interest payments it makes each year, a legacy of the multibillion-dollar debt load from the leveraged buyout of Toys R Us last decade by private equity firms Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, Bain Capital Partners and Vornado Realty Trust.
This holiday season, Toys R Us appears to be at the back of the pack in terms of pricing on the hottest gift toys. Retail technology startup Boomerang Commerce found that on 60 top-selling toys, Toys R Us' website had higher prices nearly across the board, according to data from mid-December shared with Retail Dive. Of those 60 toys, 73% were more expensive at Toys R Us' site compared to Amazon, 78% were more expensive than at Walmart's site, and 68% were more expensive than Target's.
Those products at Toys R Us's site were on average 24% more expensive than on Amazon's, 22% more than at Walmart's and 14% more than at Target's, according to Boomerang. When excluding items that were priced the same as Amazon, Toys R Us was 30% more expensive.
In some cases, Toys R Us' prices were even higher. The Boomerang team found that, for example, the Fisher-Price "Kick and Play Piano Gym" sold for around $25 at Amazon, Walmart and Target, but sold for $50 at Toys R Us. A Marvel Spider-Man Mega City Playset sold for $65 at Amazon, Walmart and Target, but sold for $100 at Toys R Us. Moreover, at 7% the company had a higher out of stock rate than Target and Amazon (at 3% each).
"Putting the onus on consumers — that never feels great."
Boomerang Commerce Vice President of Marketing
Among the flurry of announcements and press releases issued since filing for bankruptcy, Toys R Us this fall said it would offer a price matching guarantee on toys. That could bring those prices in line with competitors, but by then it could be too late. Customers might not bother to work with Toys R Us to get the reduced price.
"Putting the onus on consumers — that never feels great," Gary Liu, Boomerang's vice president of marketing, told Retail Dive. "The consumer journey starts online now, and it often finishes online. … If I'm on Amazon Prime, I price compare on Toys R Us. Or even before I get on Amazon, I do a Google search. And I'm being presented with a Lego Star Wars kit … and I can see that Toys R Us is X% more than Amazon, Walmart or even Target, I'm not even clicking on Toys R Us to see if they have a price-match guarantee or they're having a site-wide promotion. I don't need to do extra math and gymnastics to see if I'm going to buy it. I'm going to go to Amazon, or increasingly Walmart, to make the purchase," Liu said.
"I think that traffic doesn't even get to the Toys R Us site," he added. Customers who want something "quick, fair and convenient" likely wouldn't bother with Toys R Us' price-matching policy, but would simply shop somewhere else. The perception of higher prices could mean Toys R Us is losing customers "for life," online and in stores, Liu said.
A potential boon for toy rivals
While Toys R Us falls behind online — to the retailers that have been eating into its market share for years — it could lose substantial ground in the physical world as well. Bloomberg reported Monday that the retailer is mulling at least 100 store closures, and perhaps as many as 200, in the U.S. That represents more than 10%-20% of its domestic footprint.
The reports follow the shuttering of around a fourth of its United Kingdom stores, where managers said the unit's warehouse stores were losing money compared to newer, smaller and more interactive stores.
But those numbers are still speculative, a Toys R Us spokesperson told Retail Dive in a statement: "Decisions about our real estate portfolio will be made only after careful consideration about the best interests of our business. Any speculation about potential store closures at this time is premature and likely to be inaccurate."
Store closures are almost certainly necessary to return Toys R Us to profitability, but it could hurt the company's sales and market share even more. Following news reports of possible closures, analysts with UBS led by Michael Lasser calculated 183 Toys R Us stores that were within 15 minutes of each other, according to a report emailed to Retail Dive. If the company closed those stores, it "may be able to retain sales at an elevated rate," the analysts wrote. But with online accounting for 37% of customer spend, some of the lost sales could move online, which could help Walmart and Target, Lasser and his team wrote.
The analysts also noted 93% of Toys R Us stores are also within 15 minutes of a Target, which has added 1,400 new and exclusive items in the toy category over the past year as Target tries to strengthen its position in the category. UBS estimated Target stores could capture 25% of the sales lost from Toys R Us closures. Walmart could benefit, too, the analysts wrote, but the impact would be smaller for the retail giant given Walmart's larger sales base.
Amazon, too, could benefit from the Toys R Us bankruptcy, noted analysts. Moreover, there are other games in town besides the mass merchants: Macy's, J.C. Penney, Hudson's Bay and Kohl's have all expanded their toy offerings.
Even in the months leading up to bankruptcy, Toys R Us was losing share. Of mothers with kids under nine, 21% shopped most often at Toys R Us in November 2016, according to Prosper Analytics data provided to Retail Dive. That figure dropped to just over 15% in November this year. During the same period Walmart, Target and Amazon all gained share with the same key demographic.
Unsurprisingly, Toys R Us' existing stores are hurting. Same-store sales in the third quarter were down 4.5%, according to its latest earnings report. Top-line sales fell to $2.1 billion, down about 7.5% from the year-ago quarter. The retailer posted a net loss of $622 million for Q3, due in part to its $201 million operating loss and $88 million in interest expenses.
Looking for a reason to shop
In the same month that Toys R Us filed for Chapter 11 protection, the retailer unveiled several moves supposed to secure its market positioning. It bought marketplace platform Mirakl to help sell products online next year and "increase its product selection and decrease time to market for new merchandise," the company said.
Perhaps more importantly, the retailer rebranded itself as the center of free play for kids, sporting a new slogan "Today We Play." The rebranding effort was the brainchild of Chief Marketing Officer Carla Hassan, who joined Toys R Us in February from PepsiCo, together with New York ad agency BBDO (which has billed the retailer nearly $645,000 for its services during the bankruptcy period, according to court documents).
Along with the ad campaign, Toys R Us has added "play labs" to nearly 50 stores where kids can play with toys in a dedicated space with specialized staff. But the retailer has long been trying to reinvigorate the store experience, including through dedicated in-store stations and events, without much impact on sales or market share.
Last year, Toys R Us CEO Dave Brandon told Bloomberg how important the store experience was to the retailer's future. "The biggest change you are going to see over the next year is that we want to bring our toy stores to life," Brandon said in the Bloomberg interview. "I want kids to be dragging their parents to our stores because they want to see what's going on at Toys R Us this weekend." Almost exactly a year later, the company filed for Chapter 11.
Hanging over the latest initiatives is a simple but critical question: Are they enough? The play labs are in a relatively small share of the company's stores. The rebranding means little if it is not accompanied by a company-wide store shakeup of some sort. For some going into Toys R Us stores, there's still little to compel them.
"If Toys R Us is to win in the space … win against Amazon and Walmart, they have to create something in the store that is different. They're not going to win on price."
Head of Marketing and Customer Experience, RetailNext
Bridget Johns, head of marketing and customer experience at consulting and analytics firm RetailNext, told Retail Dive, "If Toys R Us is to win in the space … win against Amazon and Walmart, they have to create something in the store that is different. They're not going to win on price. They're probably not going to win on assortment. But they have a fantastic opportunity to win on experience."
But she said her own son can only find things he wants to buy two out of every five visits to her local Toys R Us. "If you walk into a Toys R Us, first thing, you're blasted with whatever the season is," she said. "If it's summer, there's high stacks of water guns, inflatables, things for the pool. Which is fine because it's summertime. But even [the] merchandising is not that engaging. It's just your classic stack-them-high [approach]."
Even the company's Lego sections are "pretty stale" and "not merchandised in a way that makes kids want to play," Johns said, adding that personalization technology and other data strategies could help the retailer, along with investments to create a better in-store experience, could help the retailer.
Greg Portell, lead partner for consulting firm A.T. Kearney's retail practice, told Retail Dive earlier this year that Toys R Us likely needs to make an existential decision whether to be a toy warehouse, in which case it needs to cut its cost base to the bone, or a boutique-like retailer with specialized staff and offerings, and smaller stores. Ultimately, the company will need to choose. "They're at risk of being caught in an increasingly shrinking center," he said.
Not everyone thinks even an improved experience at Toys R Us stores would be enough to stabilize the company's position. "In marketing for toys, you're largely marketing to grandparents, because grandparents have more disposable income to buy toys," Ben Nicholson, president with consulting firm Fortis Business Advisors, told Retail Dive. "Grandparents always shop on price."
Nicholson pointed to Legoland as an example of a successful experiential retail experience, but the specialty chain charges at the door for the experience itself. As for Toys R Us, which so far doesn't charge for the experience of shopping at its stores: "They've got to get that merchandise out of there," Nicholson said.
The stakes are high — perhaps higher than they've ever been — and the clock is ticking as Toys R Us tries to produce a concrete reason for shoppers to buy from the retailer.
As Johns put it, "If you're not winning on experience and your prices are higher, why would you as a parent or a gift buyer shop at Toys R Us?"