If you grew up in the ‘80s or ‘90s, a trip to your local Toys “R” Us was probably your favorite way to spend a Saturday. This store was advertised as a kid-friendly shopping destination that stocked virtually every toy you could think of at the lowest price in the area. It was a staple in the lives of countless children, and at its peak, the chain cornered a quarter of the lucrative toy market.
Sadly, competition from physical and online stores like Walmart, Target, and Amazon grew in the early 2000s and 2010s, and in 2018 Toys “R” Us closed its last remaining U.S. location (though the brand is looking to make a comeback later in 2021). Here are a few facts about this toy store giant.
After returning home from World War II, 25-year-old Charles Lazarus noticed that all of his friends were quickly getting married and starting families. To take advantage of what would become the Baby Boom, he used the money he saved while in the service to open a store that catered to families with babies and young children. “My instincts told me the timing was right,” Lazarus told Entrepreneur in a 2008 interview.
Although timing was a large part of Lazarus’s success in business, his family’s experience in the retail industry helped as well. His parents had owned a bicycle repair shop in Washington, D.C., when he was young, and that was the space he used to open his baby-focused store, Children’s Bargain Town, after the war in 1948.
Lazarus’s initial store only sold baby furniture like cribs, strollers, and high chairs. But he soon realized he wasn’t generating many repeat customers, since most of his products could be used for multiple children in one family. After a woman asked if she could buy some toys in addition to the crib she was purchasing, he added a few trinkets and other basic playthings to his inventory. He noticed that people who bought toys returned frequently because their kids had broken their original dolls or they simply wanted something new. That’s when Lazarus chose to shift his business from a baby furniture store to a toy store.
In 1957, Lazarus opened the first Toys “R” Us as a dedicated toy store in Rockville, Maryland. In addition to the change in products, Lazarus stocked his shelves with thousands of different toys and novelties from nearly every brand customers could imagine (and plenty more they probably never heard of). The end result was more like a supermarket for toys, and it was a far cry from the small, family-run toy shops most people found in their communities. As a result, Toys “R” Us became the first big-box toy store in the United States.
Toys “R” Us was so successful that it is generally credited with creating the term category killer. This refers to a company that is so competitive with its inventory and prices that it drives all other similar outlets out of business. Not only did Toys “R” Us have more toys than any other store, but it also had some of the lowest prices around, proudly proclaiming that “Nothing [was] ever sold at list price.”
By 1990, Toys “R” Us, which had more than 1400 locations worldwide at its peak, controlled around 25 percent of the estimated $12 billion toy market.
A hallmark of Toys “R” Us is the backward R in the name. Lazarus did this intentionally to look like a child had written it. The result was a whimsical hallmark that emphasized the family-friendly nature of the store. Later, the company established other brands, including Babies “R” Us and Kids “R” Us, that shared the backward R in their logos.
Geoffrey the Giraffe first appeared for Children’s Bargain Town as Dr. G. Raffe. But when Toys “R” Us took off, the good doctor got a facelift for the new store, becoming more animated and lovable. (The name Geoffrey actually came from a Toys “R” Us store associate.) Over the years, Geoffrey experienced several changes, including the addition of a family and a brief period in the early 2000s when he was given a photorealistic makeover and was voiced by Jim Hanks, Tom Hanks’s brother.
Shortly after the final U.S. store was closed in 2018, a giant statue of Geoffrey the Giraffe that was kept at the company’s headquarters in Wayne, New Jersey, was given a new home. Bristol-Myers Squibb Children’s Hospital at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, New Jersey, purchased the statue to bring joy to the patients at the facility.
“Geoffrey used to be a doctor,” John Gantner, the hospital’s former president and CEO, said in 2018. “I thought it fitting and a little bit ironic that Dr. G. Raffe has moved to a hospital in this next stage of his career.”
James Patterson is known for his bestselling novels like 1993’s Along Came a Spider and 1995’s Kiss the Girls, but he can also write a pretty catchy commercial jingle. Before he became one of the world’s richest authors, Patterson worked as the creative director for the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency. In 1982, he and a coworker, Linda Kaplan Thaler, came up with the toy chain’s iconic “I’m a Toys ‘R’ Us kid” jingle that you’re probably humming right now.
Although you can’t walk into a Toys “R” Us right now, the brand hasn’t completely disappeared. The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2017 after seeing a consistent decrease in sales due largely to other competitors and the rise of online shopping. They are now owned by the brand management company WHP Global and have announced plans to reopen some retail offerings in late 2021 in the form of flagship stores, pop-ups, or displays within other stores. For now, you can still visit the Toys “R” Us website, where you’ll find digital Geoffrey color book pages and tutorials for making Play-Doh shapes and Disney drawings.