The downward spiral of the once legendary Toys ‘R’ Us company began at the heels of its $6.6 billion buyout in 2005. KKR and Bain Capital, private equity firms, have controlled all aspects of the store since the buyout. The climate for retail was already getting to be calamitous for a number of retail companies in the mid-2000’s. To make matters worse, the firms who bought out the store knew very little about properly managing a retail company, especially in the midst of such unforgiving times.
Toys ‘R’ Us filed for bankruptcy in September of 2017 but pledged to keep all 1,600-some stores around the globe running. By then the store was $5 billion in debt and the higher-ups were doing the bare-minimum to keep the store relevant. In a highly-competitive, constantly modernizing and innovating nation, Toys ‘R’ Us was desperately clinging on to the past. Less than a year after declaring bankruptcy, news was leaked that Toys ‘R’ Us would be permanently closing down all of its American stores. Before employees could formally hear it from their bosses, they realized from questionable sources on the internet that their days working at Toys ‘R’ Us were numbered.
Toys ‘R’ Us used to be the place to go with your parents to have your own exciting spending spree. Within the past few years, it’s become the subject of controversy, gossip, and vast media coverage. Where down the line did things turn so sour for our favorite toy store? Four employees have some answers, as well as some informed comments.
Paige Ford, Bri Harper, Elizabeth Turner, and X, all current or past employees of the Moline Toys ‘R’ Us, sat down to speak with me about their experiences working at the store before and after liquidation. X, Department Supervisor, and Bri Harper, Sales Associate, have both been at the store for about 7 years. Paige Ford and Elizabeth Turner were also Sales Associates and worked at the store for about two years. All of them fondly recall their memories working at Toys ‘R’ Us before liquidation.
The staff of the Moline Toys ‘R’ Us strived to give their customers the best shopping experience and have a fun time doing it. “If it wasn’t closing, I’d still be there,” says Ford. “I’ve told every interviewer that I’d still be working there if they weren’t closing,” admits Turner who now has an assistant supervisor job at another retail store. The work that was done at Toys ‘R’ Us had the perfect blend of causality, joy, and passion.
Discovering that all American stores would be permanently closing was devastating to everyone. Many employees of the toy store were parents, so even their children were inevitably impacted by the news. Turner, mother of two young boys, says, “My son tells me everyday that he wants me to put my uniform on because he wants me to stay.” Working at Toys ‘R’ Us and having children wasn’t always easy, but it certainly had its perks. Harper explains that working at Toys ‘R’ Us meant she had an easily-accessible, wide selection of high quality toys for her son that other retail stores simply didn’t have. Now that the American Toys ‘R’ Us stores are closing for good, finding retail stores that have a vast selection of toys with good reputations may prove to be a challenge. Many parents will likely replace Toys ‘R’ Us with stores like Wal-Mart and Target, or they will buy their toys online.
The communication between individual stores and the higher-ups of the company was so poor, most everyone realized that the store was closing from news stations and online articles. “I found out from Facebook that I was no longer going to have a job,” explains Turner. Instead of having heard it straight from a supervisor or manager, the heads of the company decided to purposefully withhold information from their employees. Some speculate this was done in effort to maintain reasonably-sized staffs for a prolonged period, but what resulted was mass confusion and chaos.
“In store, we did everything we could,” explains X with regard to the poor communication. As a result of little to no conversation between the CEO of the company and individual stores, managers never knew what to anticipate. Nothing was predictable anymore. Even things as simple as gift cards were muddled, explains Harper. “I wasn’t ever told that gift cards were no longer going to work. I saw it on a piece of paper at a register.” A store that was handling itself perfectly fine beforehand was beginning to collapse under immense pressure from the media and irate customers. The staff, out of all parties involved, was suffering the most.
When asked whether or not the leadership of the company contributed much to the downfall of Toys ‘R’ Us, most everyone had the same response–an unwavering, resounding “absolutely.” Turner explained that there are some employees currently at the Moline Toys ‘R’ Us who have invested over 30 years of their lives and are getting pennies in return. “[Profiteers] can’t pay their billions of dollars of debt, but they can take that $16 million payout?” exclaims Turner. Retail stores in general were suffering immensely in the wake of rising popularity in online ordering. “People have chosen computers to replace humans in customer service. That’s capitalism,” claims Harper. Amazon, an online-only company, is what millions of people use for most of the goods they purchase, including toys. Stores like War-Mart and Target also have incredibly powerful online presences compared to Toys ‘R’ Us.
When it came to the company of Toys ‘R’ Us as a whole, the lack of communication, awful marketing, and lack of effort to innovate were major contributions to the store’s demise. “CEOs were busy running a store they had no business running. They did not know how to run a business… Now 33,000 people are without jobs,” explains Turner. When it came to public relations and marketing, the budget simply wouldn’t allow quality to prevail. Ford was hard-pressed to recall a time she ever encountered a solid Toys ‘R’ Us advertisement off the clock. X explains that he would constantly hear from his customers the phrase “I didn’t know your store did that” when it came to price-matching and online ordering. Employees could only blame that unfamiliarity on their customers for so long–it was clearly a direct consequence of poor marketing.
For the Moline Toys ‘R’ Us store itself, their return-without-a-receipt policy was detrimental. “The fraudulent returns got to be a huge problem. People would literally grab stuff off the floor and return it,” reveals Harper. Despite the company’s clear lack of motivation to innovate, it still aimed to present itself as the nation’s best baby and children toy store. As a result, the company’s return policy ended up being too soft on the general public. People took advantage of this fact and would steal right in front of the faces of the employees. The company’s policy, like many retail stores, denied employees the right to pursue customers suspected of stealing merchandise. These fraudulent returns became a reoccurring issue and severely damaged the Moline store.
Shortly before and after liquidation sales began for the Moline Toys ‘R’ Us things were spiraling out of control. “You saw everybody’s true colors when liquidation started,” mentions Turner. According to Ford, there was even one instance when a group of customers insulted and accused her of having “white privilege” when they believed prices were “too high” before liquidation had officially started. Ford explains that “People would literally insult employees and call them ‘bitches’ when prices were too high.” In addition to bona fide insults, customers would regularly claim “this is why you’re going out of business” to all of the employees when their experiences were, according to them, unsatisfactory. Harper explains that customers would say it about every little thing–even the way gift receipts were printed.
The phone was always ringing after the eventual closing of all American stores was leaked to the public. The calls only grew in frequency and obscenity once liquidation officially began. “We don’t have the same person answering calls for more than three hours a shift now. People are just so mean and we get asked the same questions all the time,” adds Harper. At the customer service desk, the person on-shift will ring customers up at the register, process most returns, and answer phone calls. Shifts typically last anywhere from 5-8 hours at a time. Managers rarely switch out customer service associates at any given shift; even during the busiest time of the year–Black Friday. The fact that callers are simply so rude, so irrefutably inconsiderate that managers make an effort to switch employees out every three hours is downright shocking. It just goes to further illustrate how much management cares about its employees and understands their plights.
Now that liquidation has begun for the Moline Toys ‘R’ Us, many employees are leaving or have already left. Business is booming with liquidation sales, however. It’s getting more and more strenuous for the store to manage its unusually high influx of customers when so many employees are moving on. “It’s so difficult when you lose an employee,” explains X. “Now, I cannot feel that way because everyone has to be somewhere else. The last thing I need to do is [plant] my hooks in everyone.”
Management has posted a job-hiring board in the break room of the store since its closing was officially announced. Even though the store needs more employees than it has needed in years, the managers and supervisors in charge are making an effort to find their employees jobs elsewhere. If that isn’t indisputable testimony of utmost care and devotion for the welfare of employees, what is? It’s so sad to hear how little the higher-ups of the company concern themselves with their thousands of employees, but it’s so heartwarming to see how much the managers who work alongside them do.
The employees of Toys ‘R’ Us hope that people remember the store in a positive light. Ford wishes that everyone commemorates it as the place you were excited to go to as a child with your parents–excited to buy the toys you had been begging for for months on end. X says, “I want everyone to remember this as a place they were happy at. I want everyone to have had happy memories here.” Turner recalls the overwhelming helpfulness and dedication of the rest of the Toys ‘R’ Us team. She mentions, “You’re never going to find a place like this.” Harper wants everyone to remember the terrific shopping experience the Toys ‘R’ Us staff strived to achieve for their customers when they think about the store. Even though the store has lost some marvelous workers, the people who have worked there will forever remember fondly their experiences helping all of us find the toys we were looking for. They hope that you will recall the “Toys ‘R’ Us Kid” in yourself when you think about the store after it’s gone.
Toys ‘R’ Us has become a feeding frenzy for irate customers in frantic search of deals and media organizations looking to get a quick view for their articles and poorly-investigated news stories. In the bosom of all of this panic and mayhem are employees who love working at the store taking the brunt of all blame and complaints. Sometimes when we as consumers are mainly interested in finding great deals, we forget that the employees of the closing store have lives too. Because of the irresponsibility of the higher-ups and CEOs of Toys ‘R’ Us, tens of thousands of employees with the weight of the world on their shoulders are in so much pain. They have to worry about finding new jobs to support their families, they have to worry about what kind of livid customers they’ll be getting the next day at work, and some of them can’t retire because after a lifetime of hard work, they’re getting nothing in return.
The next time you stop into your local Toys ‘R’ Us, just be courteous. Recognize that people who sacrifice 8-12 hours a day for a company that was once legendary is bleeding through no fault of their own. Recognize that someday, the kind person helping you find the toy you’re looking for won’t be there any longer even though he or she loves the job. Continue to shop at Toys ‘R’ Us, take advantage of those great deals, and take the time to thank those who make your shopping experience better.