Toy Industry Outlook – Post Toys R Us Situation


What a horribly tumultous week this has been. Last week I wrote about the monumental news that Toys R Us UK would close all stores. Since then the bombshell has dropped that the USA and several other key markets will also liquidate & are set to shut all stores based on current latest information released.

While the news about Toys R Us in the UK was immeasurably sad (see my thoughts on that here: TRU UK shuts stores), the news from the other side of the water is much more traumatic & massively disruptive in a really bad way (at least short term). The UK toy market will take a bit of a hit, but has successful toy specialist retail chains ready to push forward and take that TRU market share. The challenge in the USA is that there is no national specialist chain to pick up the slack – it is more than a decade since KB Toys folded after all.

For sure, those much vaunted ‘mom & pop’ stores will see some opportunity from this. But the reality is that there is no other physical retail showroom for the toy business like Toys R Us in the world’s biggest toy market. That breadth of range, year round has more than just a statement effect – in fact kids start looking at what they want for Christmas way ahead of when the product gets bought, and the biggest range you can see on a mass market pan-American basis has been Toys R Us. So this will really hurt the toy business, at least short term, which in the end will cost jobs, restrict investment in new markets, product development and marketing, and that’s before the huge impact on the 30,000+ workers at Toys R Us who look set to lose their jobs.

All of this has already been said a thousand times elsewhere, but what appears much less prevalently is what happens next? A big chunk of toy distribution looks sadly set to disappear almost overnight. So what happens next? This is a hugely critical point to consider for toy companies as they begin to plan for what a world post Toys R Us (in the current format at least) will look like.

Here’s some thoughts on that:

  • TOYS R US – THE OUTLOOK – Like all toy people I hope someone pulls a rabbit out of the bag and we can just go back to where we have been with the Toys R Us we know and love. Alas, that is looking less and less likely. The reality is Toys R Us in the current form looks gone. However, there is huge equity in the Toys R Us brand and also equity in some retail locations/markets and website. Therefore, it looks fairly likely to rise like a phoenix from the flames in some shape or form – the only matter of contention seems to be the scale of that re-emergence! The consortium reportedly being lead by Isaac Larian of MGA Entertainment fame is well placed enough to have some really serious conversations….predicting the outcome of that consortium’s approach is not possible as only those inside know how the numbers look – but from a holistic toy industry perspective, it is hard to see how that would not be a credible option with huge supplier support. Fingers crossed for that – but if not, at the very least expect the much maligned to arise back as an e-commerce operation. Here’s hoping whatever version of TRU comes through this is as big, viable and successful as possible!


  • MASS MARKET RETAILERS – the reality is that we can probably expect Target, Walmart & others to pick up some of the Toys R Us business. We may even see some of these generalist retailers expand their toy ranges. After all, some multi-category retailers use Toys as a loss leader to drive traffic into store at peak season, so logically they must be targeting some of that TRU business right now. They do however have physical limits in store – we may see a space increase for toys, but it is hard to see how that could ever be more than a 10-25% increase, because their business model relies on offering a broader range than just toys, and each of their other non-toy categories has demand dynamics also/needs a minimum of space. More likely, we’re going to see somewhat increased sell through numbers in these mass market stores. The challenge though with that from the toy industry standpoint is these customers are unlikely to throw caution to the wind and massively increase stock holding on lines they have listed. If you had to sum up the stock buying approach of many mass market chains in two words you could be forgiven for using the words ‘risk’ and ‘averse’! Therefore, it seems likely that those categories which can more quickly re-order and re-supply will do better from increased consumer demand at these stores. Longer term, we can expect these mass retailers to do well from the sad news about Toys R US, but probably not well enough to fill the gap left in terms of sales numbers.


  • SPECIALTY RETAILERS – Specialty retailers have a big opportunity to take advantage of a very unfortunate situation. In many towns across North America & other markets, we look set to have a gap in toy retail destinations. The footfall though (as Toys R Us has experienced) will not necessarily come automatically. As ever, those Specialty stores which deliver great experience, service and range have the best chance of increased business.


  • PRODUCT RANGES & PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT – in my 20 years in the toy business I can’t remember such a broad array of quirky, funky genuinely fresh products out there. The tsunami like rise of the internet has had the effect of facilitating the launch of a much broader, less risk averse product universe than we’ve seen in recent decades. This effect can be found in two ways primarily: firstly the internet has hugely increased the effective points of purchase i.e. aside from the upsurgence of the mighty Amazon – Target, Walmart and other retailers tend to have a significantly greater range on offer online versus in store, because a picture on a page of a website is a lot less limiting vs physical space you have to rent and pay for! Secondly, niche products which have breakout potential have never had more chance of seeing the light of day due to crowd funding sites and niche e-commerced stores. Sadly the impending implosion of Toys R Us looks like a setback in terms of breadth of toy product ranges. The nature of the Toys R Us format has meant that toy companies could comparatively easily leverage addtional sales out of product ranges/brands by making a few more products per range vs what the mass market generalist retailers would take. These items typically found a home at Toys R Us, giving them differentiated offerings vs. their cut price box shifting competitors and therefore delivering them greater margin on some items to balance out margin lost due to the necessity of price competition/promotion. It is currently hard to see where these products would go to deliver enough one drop payback to justify development costs. Therefore, at least short term, I expect toy ranges to narrow slightly going into 2019.


  • TOY LICENSING – Toys R Us backed some licenses which other bricks and mortar retailers did not have space for. Therefore, I foresee an ever greater reliance on corporate movie blockbusters in the short term. After a very disappointing (at the box office) and very formulaic 2017 movie slate, 2018 has started with a real bang with the massive box office success of the highly toyetic and original Black Panther (closing in on $1.1bn at the global box office at the time of writing). Hopefully we will see the momentum on movie licenses staying strong throughout 2018 to bolster those toy company P&Ls in the wake of the hit from the tribulations of Toys R Us.


  • LONG TERM TOY INDUSTRY OUTLOOK – emotions are raw right now, and rightly so. I can’t think of a worse happening in my time in toys than the Toys R Us situation. Like many, I still find myself thinking how did it get to this??? Short term this is going to be tough and painful for a lot of people and a lot of businesses who relied on Toys R Us. Longer term though, despite this setback the toy business looks set to bounce back from this stronger than ever. This is not naive hope on my behalf – today’s global population is currently estimated at around 7.6 billion people…by 2050, the world’s population  is projected to hit 9.7 billion, even by 2030 we’re due to hit 8.5 billion people. So in 12 years time we will have another 900 million people on the planet, and by 2050 an incremental 2.1 billion. While this is bad news in many ways for our species and the planet re. emissions, food, real estate availability etc., for the toy business it must surely herald a glorious future, because every single one of those billions of incremental people will start life as a baby, and move on through the toy categories before eventually casting us aside as they near double figures in age…even then we will eventually get them back as parents! At this stage, we don’t know where the toys for these kids will be bought, but they will certainly be bought. As ever, toy companies need to evolve and ride the waves of huge and distresing events like the Toys R Us situation towards a brighter future.


#I’m a Toys R Us Kid


by Steve Reece, CEO of Kids Brand Insight,  a leading toy expert consultancy to toy companies around the world. Specialties include Sourcing/factory finding, brand development and product representation.