Welcome to the first post of a new series, Living in the 90s. This started as a tribute to Toys “R” Us but took on a mind of its own. I present this “memory dump” of my childhood at my local Toys “R” Us, and I hope you can relate to it as well!
By now, most have heard the news of the impending doom of over 180 Toys r’ Us locations across the United States. While this is tragic for a multitude of reasons, it’s not as if no one saw this coming. Just a few months ago, they filed for bankruptcy protection, which did not spell anything good for the future of the Wayne, New Jersey (represent!)-based business. Those of us who were alive and cognizant of retail stores in the ’90s probably remember trips to Toys “R” Us quite fondly – after all, as rare as those trips may have been, the showroom floor of a toy store was a magical place, packed to the brim with every toy imaginable.
Before you ever made it inside however, you were greeted by the Toys “R” Us mascot, Geoffrey the Giraffe. The innocent, juvenile smile contrasted on a white brick building, with the colorful letters that let child-you know you were embarking on an adventure. Today, this day, you will be getting a new toy. This, paired with the way they framed the entrance with rows of rainbow-colored bricks seemed to act almost as a magical talisman, intended to keep the fun in, and keep all the bad things in life out. Of course, at the age I’m referring to, those bad things were contained to a short list of “homework” and “cooties”.
Not until you wandered inside, however, did the true joy of perfectly constructed consumer goods salesmanship smack you in the back of the retinas. Toys “R” Us really had a knack for arranging the showroom floor to pack as much toy into one area as possible. Whatever the current trend in toys was offered a spot front and center.
I can recall some brilliant moments to perusing the shelves at my local Toys “R” Us, but there was truly no more magnificent time than in the late-90s when the Tamagotchi was the thing.
Unfortunately, when it came my turn to get ahold of Japan’s latest gadget, upon walking into the store on that day, the shelves were not lined with Tamagotchi, as they had been bought out by every store in the entire northeast. What I saw instead, behind empty cardboard Tamagotchi stands, was Nano Baby.
Wait, what the heck is a Nano Baby!?
While imitation can be the most sincere form of flattery, when it comes to trends in the kid-focused toy world, this has simply never been the case. I’d be willing to bet that when the first caveman stepped foot into his local toy store to buy the hot new stone axe for his cavekid on Christmas Eve, and he showed up with a knock-off Chinese lead axe instead, there was hell to pay. Because that kid knew the difference. No, dad, it doesn’t matter if the Chinese lead one is also shaped like an axe, it’s still not a stone axe. Same can probably be said for caveman girls and their fancy Mammoth Ugg boots. “A sabretooth tiger boot just isn’t the same, dad!!” – these conversations probably happened.
In my case, I was never that kind of unappreciative kid – I was just thrilled that my mom wanted to take me to Toys “R” Us and that I was getting a cool new thing.
I ended up leaving the store that day with a Nano Baby, and you know what? That next day at school, everyone had one. Trends in kids toys can absolutely vary from region to region, and in my middle school, Tamagotchis were obviously popular in the late 90s, but the Nano series of digital pocket pets also enjoyed popularity, particularly with the Puppy and Kitty varieties. This thing was a blast, and before you knew it, the whole school was ready for parenting.
Of course, you didn’t always go to Toys “R” Us hoping to find one specific product. Part of perusing that cornucopia was to find the potential hot new thing, after all. This was all made much easier, of course, by none other than the weekly catalog pulled from the center of the newspaper. These full-page spreads were the equivalent of taking everything about advertisement design and 90s trends, throwing them into a blender, and then spilling the result on to a blank canvas.
The 90s design was strong with the Toys “R” Us marketing design department, and it worked like a charm. Those colors! Those random shapes! Those fonts!
Of course, being the late 90s, there were some trends that Toys “R” Us was well-equipped for. They showed no mercy at marketing the hell out of every hot new product, and at covering every visible square inch of their story in a thousand colors and cardboard advertisements.
The explosion of DIY kids toys, most notably K’NEX, dominated the advertisements for a good long while. Furbys exploded on to American culture practically overnight. Super Soakers and Nerf Guns helped kids leave proper welts on the backs of their friends. Beanie Babies made little kids happy, and helped families invest in the future, which turned out to be an idea on par with dumping money into Enron. Pokemon absolutely fired itself out of a slingshot into the mainstream caused every holiday catalog to be littered with Pikachus and Charizards.
And let’s not even talk about the stores at the time – my heart weeps thinking of the cardboard cutouts that must have made it to the dumpster at some point. I kick myself every day for not wandering into my local Toys “R” Us with a video camera every day. Probably had something to do with the fact that our family video camera weighed 50 pounds. That’s “extra super heavy for a child” in Euro-units.
The advertisement above just happens to feature some gorgeous Gameboy Colors and some Super Nintendo games, which is from right around the time I first recall going to Toys “R” Us for video games. This was right around the era where the Super Nintendo and Gameboy Color were all the rage, and Toys “R” Us was the place to go for all the hottest games.
What separated Toys “R” Us from the other stores is that they had this wonderful system for getting games. You would grab a ticket from underneath the game box itself, and bring it up to the front counter to claim your prize. Think for a minute how cool that felt as a young kid – you take this piece of paper, you hand it to a person, and they hand you a shrink-wrapped, perfect condition, brand new video game! It’s this reason that’s been cited most commonly in the recent Toys “R” Us discussions for why buying video games at Toys “R” Us was second to none, and while most likely implemented as a mere anti-shoplifting tactic, it actually worked in the stores favor. Kids loved those tickets. Who could have predicted that?
This is mostly a video games blog, and while I have countless memories from my local location, the very location at which the corporation is headquartered, Toys “R” Us represented the mecca of my favorite hobby.
As a matter of fact, several years later when the Nintendo 64 was all the rage, on a random day, Toys “R” Us would be where my mom decided to let me pick a new video game to bring home. She saw the box art to a game I had picked up, and figured that it couldn’t be too bad, seeing that it featured a cartoon bear and bird. Who would have thought that now, in 2018, that decision would have had a major impact on me, heck, a major impact on the genre that is still attempting to be replicated today? Of course, if you haven’t figured it out, that game she bought me that day was Banjo-Kazooie.
The amount of memories I have from Toys “R” Us is truly remarkable.
It’s truly a sad time to hear that over 180 locations will be closing in the foreseeable future. When I first heard of the store closures, I took a quick glance over the closure list, and much to my dismay, when I scrolled down to New Jersey, my beloved childhood location was on that list. In a world dominated by online vendors, it was admittedly completely inevitable, but it’s still tragic to see a great thing end. Not unlike the demise of Blockbuster, I hoped that they could figure out how to survive and dig themselves out of the hole, but as a techie, I knew better than that. Big companies take years to turn around business strategy. And by that point, it’s like leaving an ice cube out in the desert – it’s only a matter of time before it’s gone.
On the positive side, I hope these store closures paves a way for something new – something for the little people of tomorrow to look forward to, to tell their kids and future blog readers about, and to associate with the pure childhood bliss of yesterday.
Did you enjoy this read? Well I enjoyed writing it – but there’s nothing I enjoy more than reminiscing about the “good ol’ days!” What’s your favorite childhood memory of going to the toy store? Did you have a Toys “R” Us near you? What do you remember about it? Let’s chat in the comments!