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Discount Diva: Nostalgia runs deep for Toys R Us, but indy stores can fill the void

Some kids counted sheep when they couldn’t fall asleep. I mentally perfected my Toys R Us Super Toy Run strategy.

Nickelodeon used to run an epic nationwide sweepstakes, the winner of which had five minutes to tear through Toys R Us, fill shopping carts with as many toys as they could and keep them all for free.

But that’s pretty much where my nostalgia for Toys R Us ends. I already had my heart ripped out in 1999, when Hills Department Store closed. As the not-creepy-at-all Hills Sprite always reminded us, “Hills is where the toys are”. Or were, until Ames took over and ruined everything.

But Toys R Us nostalgia runs deep among my generation. When the bankrupt chain announced Thursday it would liquidate and close all of its stores, Millennials and Generation Xers went into a sort of retail grieving period. #RIP hashtags filled Twitter, with grown-up Toys R Us kids bidding a tearful adieu to a symbol of their collective cultural childhood. Someone even posted a melancholy version of the store’s jingle to YouTube, moaning “I don’t wanna grow up” over minor keyboard chords.

But this is a fresh devastation for generations of Toys R Us kids. For them, a trip to the store was almost as magical as a trip to Disney World. I’m not just making that up – market researchers asked kids to name their favorite place on the planet. They consistently namedDisney first, Toys R Us second.

But of course, this isn’t just a loss in terms of nostalgia.

We’re talking 30,000 jobs across the country and gaping holes left at retail plazas in Amherst, Hamburg and Clarence. It’s also not clear how the closing of America’s biggest toy store might affect East Aurora-based Fisher Price. Mattel, which owns Fisher-Price, counts on Toys R Us for about 11 percent of its annual sales, analysts estimate.

But maybe there’s a bright side. Maybe the gaping void Toys R Us will leave in the minds, hearts and memories of Western New Yorkers poses a huge opportunity to small, independent mom and pop toy stores in the local market. You know, the charming little places that chains like Toys R Us have wiped out over the years; the shops that carry a thoughtfully curated collection of well-made, responsibly sourced toys, rather than flimsy, flash-in-the-pan, plastic junk imported from China and destined for the landfill after just a few short months.

For many parents, a trip to the toy store isn’t like a trip to the grocery store. You don’t go because you have to. Often, you go because it’s the middle of winter and your kids are climbing the walls.

You go to have something to do, and you end up buying things the kids glommed onto during the trip.

Mom and pop stores were built for that kind of fun, with their interactive displays, friendly workers and unique inventory. Whether they’re picking penny toys out of the buckets at the Treehouse on Elmwood Avenue, learning how to make slime at Bloomsbury Lane Toy Shoppe in Lancaster or marveling at Mexican jumping beans at Clayton’s; kids are in their glory.

Yes, big boxes like Target and Walmart, and online retailers such as Amazon will likely absorb most of the market share Toys R Us gives up. But, if old-school “Main Street” toy stores in Western New York seize the opportunity, and Western New York shoppers give them the chance, the next generation’s memories of toy shopping might more closely match their grandparents’ than our own. And their grandchildren might inherit a more sound, right-sized brick-and-mortar retail landscape.

 

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