Toys WERE Us: A Psychologist Reflects on the Downfall of Toys R Us
The closing of Toys R Us was tantamount to killing a piece of American society’s collective childhood.
I, along with many of my similarly-aged peers, was saddened by the recent news that Toys R’ Us would be shutting down all of its stores. The closing of Toys R Us was tantamount to killing a piece of American society’s collective childhood. Okay, maybe that’s a bit extreme, but it certainly feels that way. Such a reaction is hardly surprising when a store became an institution of sorts that was near and dear to the hearts of children growing up in the 70’s, 80’s, and beyond.
When I heard the news, the super catchy jingle immediately came to mind that has been imprinted on my mind since I was a wee boy:
“I don’t wanna grow up, I’m a Toys R’ Us kid, there’s a million toys at Toys R’ Us that I can play with, I don’t wanna grow up, I’m a Toys R Us kid, they got the best for so much less, it’ll really flip your lid …from bikes and planes to video games, it’s the biggest toy store there is – GEE WHIZ! I don’t wanna grow up, because maybe if I did…I wouldn’t be a Toys R’ Us kid.”
Check out Geoffrey the Giraffe’s grief-stricken response on Jimmy Kimmel here.
Consider us all grown up now, I suppose because we are faced with the stark reality that the days of kids gawking at stacks of toys and tearing around the many aisles of this particular toy store chain are numbered. Maybe it’s due to mismanagement and poor executive decisions, I’m not entirely sure, but it seems like the market has been evolving and Toys R Us shot itself in the foot by not keeping pace with these changes.
The End of a Generation
It’s no secret that Amazon has cut into the toy business in a huge way.
The allure of “Free 2-Day Shipping” (well, “free” after paying the $99 yearly Amazon Prime membership fee) coupled with hassle-free returns cannot be understated. Time is precious – who wants to drive all the way to the store, scanning aisles for that elusive gift and then wait in line and deal with customer service if you have to return it?
Another factor that may have contributed to the downfall of Toys R Us is an overall de-emphasis on toys as the primary vehicles of creative expression. In 2017, for instance, iconic Danish toy brick maker Lego reported it’s first fall of profits in 13 years. Now I don’t know what the data suggests, but anecdotally I have noticed that kids have been gravitating towards digital forms of entertainment, both interactive (video games) and non-interactive (YouTube videos and/or Netflix).
It’s not to say that Toys R Us didn’t offer these options, they stocked plenty of consoles, peripherals, tablets, and games. This section, however, consisted of approximately one-tenth of the available merchandise. As far as gaming is concerned, there has been a shift towards digital distribution of content in the last several years. You can certainly go to a brick and mortar store to purchase plastic cards containing voucher codes to redeem online, but why bother when you can just do it all from the comfort of your desktop, laptop, or even your phone or tablet?
The Implication of Toys ‘R Us on Child Development
Anyway, what might this development say about, well, our children’s development?
Others have already commented extensively on this and offered research to back up their assertions but suffice to say that the pros tend to be improved hand-eye coordination, spatial awareness, opportunities for socialization (especially for those who experience difficulty with this in the real world), and enhanced facility navigating an ever-online and digitally connected world.
The cons are heightened distractibility, compromised social skills, opportunities for cyberbullying, exposure to dubious, non-vetted, and misleading information, decreased physical activity, stifled creativity (although constructive games like Minecraft might offset this effect), and the danger of developing compulsive habits of use. This is not to say technology is inherently good or bad, in the end, it’s all about effective regulation, such as setting some reasonable restrictions.
But what about the fact that our kids seem to be spending less and less time with their toys? It’s hard to know for sure, but what will be the sum impact of an overall lack of imaginative play? I submit that this may lead to difficulties with creativity, as noted above, and empathy.
Why? Because children often use their toys to work through and act out the dramas and fantasies of life. When they are just passively spoon fed content through videos, often punctuated by descriptive dialogue and humorous musings, or presented with a game that guides them along a certain narrative, they are not engaging their imaginations fully to fill in the gaps themselves. To be fair, similar concerns apply when kids are watching too much television too.
So is there even a market for toys now?
I mean, who needs toys anyway when you’ve got all the newfangled technological equipment? I know I’m not alone in this, but there are plenty of adult collectors who seek out various toys in a nostalgia-driven effort to connect with their inner child. Whether we buy them to display or to squirrel away in the hopes that the value will increase dramatically, there are certainly plenty of passionate collectors out there. Saturday Night Live spoofed us hilariously in this skit.
Clearly, the demand for these types of toys from collectors was not enough to keep Toys R Us afloat, unfortunately. But hey – there’s always the toy department at Target…