Smart 'R' Us?

by Steve McKee

Toys R UsToys ‘R’ Us has faced its share of difficulties over the past several years. The company has had to contend with the likes not only of traditional competitors including Sears, KB Toys and FAO Schwarz, but bricks-and-mortar bruisers like Target and Walmart and Web behemoth Amazon. Not so long ago the company faced what appeared to be an existential threat from a very-well funded (and heavily advertised) “new economy” competitor, an online startup called eToys. There was a period when I thought Toys ‘R’ Us not only had seen its better days, but would have very few days left.

My how times have changed. Toys ‘R’ Us now owns–that’s right, owns–the FAO Schwarz, eToys and KB Toys brands. And in a gutsy move that runs counter to the loss of nerve by which most retailers are still being tripped up, the company, which has fewer than 850 stores, will launch an additional 350 temporary locations during the upcoming holiday season. That means more rent, more people, more inventory, and more risk. It also means significant potential to gain market share.

In a Wall Street Journal interview, Toys ‘R’ Us CEO Gerald Storch said about the decision, “The current economic disruption provides an opportunity. The people who made their fortunes during the Great Depression where those that moved when everyone else was pulling back.”

He’s right, of course. The same Wall Street Journal article cites a CIT Group study which suggests that two thirds of retailers plan on hunkering down during the upcoming holiday season. While they make their toys easier to buy (with bigger discounts) but harder to find ( by stocking less inventory), Toys ‘R’ Us is positioning itself to be in the right place at the right time as harried shoppers look to cross items off their list (given the category, often impulsively). That will help the company not only pick up share, but protect its margins.

Rather than sitting around, wringing its hands about another potentially difficult holiday season, the Toys ‘R’ Us team has decided that disruptive times often call for disruptive measures. I predict their stockings will be full this year.


Steve McKee is a BusinessWeek.com columnist, marketing consultant, and author of “When Growth Stalls: How it Happens, Why You’re Stuck, and What To Do About It.” Learn more about him at www.WhenGrowthStalls.com and at http://twitter.com/whengrowthstall.

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