Why neighborhood toy stores are thriving as Toys R Us goes bankrupt

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Kids see Bartons Child’s Play as a fun hangout where they can explore. (Justin T. Gellerson/For The Washington Post)

Ella Wiesenfelder has been coming to Barstons Child’s Play all her life, so that’s naturally where she wanted to be on the afternoon of her 8th birthday.

She had already picked out a Lego spaceship and magic kit with 150 tricks for herself and was now helping her 6-year-old sister, Cora, make a selection.

“How about that?” she asked, holding a color-changing pony in the bath.

“It’s fun. It’s much better than shopping online,” she says, “because I don’t know how to use the computer.”

Ella and Cora, it’s fair to say, aren’t Toys R Us kids.

Last week, the big-box toy retailer filed for bankruptcy protection after a long and losing battle to sell its own brand of entertainment. Competitors have forged ahead with better customer service in stores and better shopping experiences, prices and selection online. In the end, however, it was a $7.9 billion pile of debt—mostly dating from a 2005 leveraged buyout—that did it.

If Toys R Us is a private equity horror story (not for kids), then mom-and-pop neighborhood toy stores are more like a fairy tale.

Here at Child’s Play in northwest Washington, annual sales have increased about 3% per year as parents shun megastores and online options in favor of the company’s four sites, which generate together millions in annual income.

On a recent weekday afternoon, the store was packed with children. Their parents said they come to the store regularly because they love the carefully curated selection, the helpful employees, the Lego building events and the gift wrapping, which can come in handy when heading to a birthday party. birthday.


A Ninjago Lego building event at Bartons Child’s Play in the Chevy Chase neighborhood of Washington. (Justin T. Gellerson/For The Washington Post)

“On top of all that, it’s just an amazing place to hang out,” said Mary Freeland, whose 8-year-old son was shuffling through a colorful parking lot. “They let my son play.”

Across the country, independent toy stores are experiencing a revival as parents — and their children — seek out unique shopping experiences that stand out at a time when so many of their shopping habits have been curtailed, experts say. to impersonal clicks of a button. While adults may be inclined to shop around or shop from their living room, kids prefer to bring their allowances and birthday money to a store that allows them to play and explore.

It’s a very different story from Toys R Us, which for decades was the nation’s leading toy retailer, with a towering flagship in New York’s Times Square and ubiquitous icon Geoffrey the Giraffe. The company had been in freefall for years, and analysts said filing for bankruptcy was inevitable.

“Toys R Us, which had essentially become a warehouse, didn’t have the vision or the money to give its customers a great experience,” said Howard Davidowitz, a retail consultant who worked with Toys R Us. in the 1980s and 1990s. “For a toy store to survive, it has to create the kind of fun that Amazon can’t.” (Jeffrey P. Bezos, CEO of Amazon, owns The Washington Post.)

This kind of fun is what Child’s Play has discovered and perfected over three decades. His sprawling store in the tony Chevy Chase neighborhood is a maze of displays and play spaces. There is a Lego section and a fake food section and designated areas for costumes, water guns and puzzles. Bath crayons ($6.99), Elmo puppets ($18.99), and scooters ($129.99) are strewn throughout.

“Kids these days are restless – they crave an interactive experience,” said Susan Lee, partner at marketing firm Simon Kucher & Partners. “It’s not enough to have piles of toys on a shelf.”

Child’s Play toys are chosen with the help of developmental psychologists, occupational therapists and teachers. Staff members receive extensive training in child development and learn to recommend items based on specific considerations.

Need to work on your little one’s finger strength? Employees might recommend Play-Doh.

Do you have a child who is struggling to lose? Cooperative games such as Forbidden Island or Mole Rats in Space may be the ticket.

Often, parents said they walk into the store with a few parameters: “I need a $20 gift for a 4-year-old boy.” It’s only a matter of minutes before an employee comes up with something and wraps it up for them. (“Go to any birthday party here, and it’s all Child’s Play gift-wrapping,” one mom said.)

“Every employee here gets at least 5 minutes to shtick on every item in this store,” Shannon Sumner said. “And we all have at least one specialty, whether it’s books or Legos or board games.” (His expertise: Nerf guns and outdoor toys.)

“People these days tend to think of toys as disposable entertainment,” said Steven Aarons, who founded Child’s Play 31 years ago. “But they are so much more than that. They are really important for the development of a child.


Janice Wilding’s son Ben and daughter Grace pass the time at Bartons Child’s Play while his eldest daughter takes music lessons in the neighborhood. (Justin T. Gellerson/For The Washington Post)

Benjamin Mack stood in front of the Star Wars Legos.

“I just like to come see what they have here,” the 8-year-old said. “Sometimes I wish I could buy everything in that aisle.”

It is there, he says, that he comes to spend the monthly allowance he earns doing household chores. Once he made $21 in a month. Today he was empty-handed.

“I usually focus on the $10 sets, which are more affordable for me,” he said.

“But if I had a lot of cash, I’d put them on the top shelf,” he added, pointing to an off-road tactical executor marked $149.99. “They cost hundreds of euros.”

He and his 5-year-old brother, he says, live nearby and like to stop by after school.

“I think toy stores have an advantage over stores on your phone or computer,” Benjamin said, looking at a display of Legos. “Amazon may have more stuff, but it’s easier because you don’t have to stare at a screen.”

Nearby, a customer remembered that employees had found an ancient obscure shark figurine for her twins. Another recalled the time employees opened a board game for her 7-year-old son, Ben, to decide if it was the right gift for his friend.

“When Ben was looking for a soccer ball, they pulled out a bunch of soccer balls and played with him,” said Janice Wilding, who had stopped with her three children. “They actually threw them in the store. Who else would do that?”

Taking toys out of their boxes and showing how they work is an important part of working in independent toy stores. This is also the main reason why companies such as Haba, a German toy manufacturer specializing in wooden toys, only sell to independent retailers.

“The specialty toy market represents our brand in a way that mass retailers simply cannot,” said Lea Culliton, president of Haba USA. “We want to work with committed and competent traders, and that’s also what today’s parents want.”


Taking toys out of their boxes and showing how they work is an important part of working in independent toy stores. (Justin T. Gellerson/For The Washington Post)

Back to board games, Ella and Cora were always looking for the right toy. Their last pick was a laser tag game for $49.99.

“Please, please,” Cora said, jumping in place. “We can both play.”

“No, mom said no guns,” said their father, Jon. “We’re only here, what, an hour?” Damn, I need a beer.

Most of the time, says Jon, he does his shopping online. It’s cheaper and easier.

“If I had had a little foresight, I would have bought her birthday toys online too,” he said. “But they like to come here, so what can you do?”

The girls’ pediatrician came in and said hello. Then Ella and Cora met some classmates.

Cora found a foam baseball bat that she thought her dad would like. (He didn’t.) She considered a Barbie convertible. (“Don’t even think about it,” her older sister told her. “If it’s a car, that means it’s way too much money.”)

“Cora, in two seconds, if you have nothing, we’re leaving,” their father shouted. “Girls, I’m going through the door.”

Then he spotted an enclosure topped by a parrot. An employee came to show Cora how it worked: “Here, look,” she said. “Say your name.”

“Cora,” Cora said.

“Cora,” repeated the parrot.

The 6 year old started jumping. ” I understand ! I understand! It says everything in a loop!”

His father raised his fist in the air. “Done! Perfect! OK, Ella, you can have one too. Let’s go!”

He paid for the toys. They walked out, the girls holding hands, their father holding two bags of toys.

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