In England last month I witnessed a phenomenon that spoke volumes about challenges facing U.S. toy retailers. Driving past the local toy barn with a group of parents, I was surprised by a chorus of barely concealed disgust: “You know, I wish we'd never taken him/her there. That place is a nightmare. We end up buying things he/she doesn't really want just to get them out of the store.”
Visiting the store in question, I witnessed a special slice of retail purgatory — from bored parents grimly trawling the aisles as their kids wreaked havoc, to clusters of tired looking moms and dads slumped over shopping carts while their progeny endlessly “demoed” the latest video game.
These glassy eyed adults weren't just ignoring their kids, they were ignoring each other. Some seemed apathetic, while in others you could sense a rising tension — as they went over in their head just who suggested this trip in the first place. It was then that it dawned on me: The parents are the ones forgotten in the toy store today.
Having a 2-year-old, I know a thing or two about this. Visit any toy store in the country and you will see environments filled with over-scaled forms, cheery graphics and acid colors (what is it about the color purple?), all designed to entice my daughter to buy.
But all of this misses the point. Because if there is one thing I have learned it is that she will shop for toys anywhere.
You see, you don't need kid-friendly aesthetics. You don't even need purple. My daughter buys toys at the coffee shop, the gas station and the grocery store. And, while she already possesses a terrifyingly sophisticated sense of brands and laser vision that can spot Goldfish Crackers at 40 feet, my daughter would buy toys from a dumpster and likely not know the difference.
Still, historically almost every concept out there has taken the kid-centric approach. FAO Schwarz was a great store — a dream place for kids to shop — and yet for all the giant photo op Teddy Bears and the 30-foot Trojan Horse it wasn't enough. If toy retailers ever want to stave off Wal-Mart's dominance they have to give consumers a compelling reason to shop in their store. And when the guy down the street can sell toys to kids from grocery shelving, the writing is on the wall.
Just as Finding Nemo became the best-selling DVD in history by swapping cuteness for joint appeal, so the toy stores need to start by recognizing they increasingly have two consumers. In 28 months of being a father I have yet to enter a big-box toy store with my daughter. I still don't see a compelling reason why I would. And yet there are plenty of retailers out there that we visit time and time again.
Kid Tested, Parent Approved
Take the local Anthropologie — which becomes a magical sunlit playground complete with soft seating and old-style authentic wooden toys. In the Cincinnati store, there is a skylit common space in the center of the fitting room area with a big sofa and kid's toys. This is a place where she and dad can play and where for once mom isn't rushing. She is cooed and fussed over, surrounded by kids her age. As parents planning inevitably hectic Saturdays, there's no other choice that comes close. We spend hours in this store and emerge refreshed, relaxed and ready for a nap.
Then there is our local book store, its reading room bisected by an aquarium and filled with parents and kids every hour of the day. The adjoining bistro sells snacks you can bring to munch on and a ready supply of milk to diffuse any disappointment. Even the local Barnes and Noble gets it. It's here that my daughter developed her love affair with trains around the Thomas table, and the combination of a Starbucks and a spotless restroom make this one a no-brainer.
But best of all was the new Selfridges in Birmingham, England. It seemed at first blush that the husband-and-wife team of architects at Future Systems had designed the main floor as an homage to their own house, a space conceived around the shared experiences of familial life. At the very least the informality of that domestic model was infused throughout the environment.
And so my daughter spent two delightful hours romping from apparel to shoes to a miniature fire truck adjacent to some welcome seating. Store employees allayed our fears as they dutifully followed her trail of destruction, setting things right at every turn and even forgiving her conspicuous consumption of the candy display. All was crowned by lunch in a communal food court in the center of the store with tables at two heights and kids portions abounding in all manner of gourmet options (no chicken nuggets, no mini pizzas).
Toys are supposed to be fun. By proxy, shopping for toys is supposed to be fun. We enjoyed this store so much because we all had fun. And we didn't even buy anything!
Now, imagine a toy store with this kind of ambiance — where both parents and kids can be entertained. And don't just stop with the store, consider the products. Selfridges was also filled with alternatives for parents who care about what their kids buy, the strongest brands in the kids market today are those offering this kind of variety.
Of course it's not all bad. A few months back, there was a glimmer of hope as the folks at Toys R Us announced Geoffrey. And boy did we hold our breath. Billed as a store for kids and their moms (they do have dads as well you know) this sounded like the answer to our prayers. Finally, or so it appeared, a toy retailer who got it.
Until, of course, we saw Geoffrey: floor decals, bright cheery graphics and acid colors. Another kid-sized concept spoon-fed to the adults who shop there. The concept was correct — but not the execution. Embrace both your consumers. But please, can we do it without the purple?
Vice president and creative director of Cincinnati-based FRCH Design Worldwide.
KB Toys and FAO Inc. are bankrupt; now Toys R Us is on the skids. And Wal-Mart is walking away with the lion's share of toy sales.
Toys R Us' Geoffrey concept was supposed to be kid- and parent-friendly, but the design failed to live up to expectations.