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Amherst Toys 'R' Us tests app that turns store into virtual wonderland

Toys 'R' Us is hoping a new app will bring customers back into its brick-and-mortar stores the way Pokemon Go brought people out of their houses last summer.

And it's trying out the experiment at its Amherst store.

The store, at 3030 Sheridan Drive, is one of 23 Toys 'R' Us locations across the country piloting Play Chaser, an in-store, augmented reality experience that allows customers to see digital images displayed on top of their real surroundings and play interactive digital games when viewing the store through their smartphones.

Play Chaser was in the works long before the company filed for bankruptcy Sept. 18, but the company's difficulties seem to give the rollout a new sense of urgency as analysts watch the company try to reinvent itself. The company attributed the bankruptcy to its $5 billion in long-term debt and crushing pressure from the likes of Amazon.

As millennial shoppers favor experiences over things, and consumers increasingly stay home to shop online, getting customers into stores has been difficult.

With concepts like Play Chaser, brick-and-mortar retailers are getting creative in their quest to drive traffic to physical stores. Nordstrom, for example, is testing a concept store that does not sell clothes, but gives customers the opportunity to meet with a stylist, get a manicure and order coffee. Some stores in Buffalo close for private shopping parties or keep a fridge stocked with wine, beer and champagne to woo shoppers.

The free Toys 'R' Us smartphone app will turn the Amherst store into a virtual wonderland. Customers scan Play Chaser tags on store shelves to unlock digital games, such as basketball hoops that they can shoot in the store alongside friends, and baby dolls whose diapers they can change. Some games allow players to earn points, and let them track their score against other local and national players. The more points, or stars, players earn, the more virtual experiences they can unlock.

Other stores testing the concept are in the Rochester and New York City areas, as well as in New Jersey, Florida, Texas, North Carolina, Nebraska, Illinois and California.

"The 23 stores were chosen based on a number of factors – store size, demographics, traffic, customer relationship management data and more," said Meghan Sowa, a spokesman for Toys 'R' Us.

In the app, players can race trucks, go on safari, even go shark fishing. There are 13 stations throughout the store. Toys 'R' Us mascot Geoffrey, in the form of a digital apparition, will welcome customers to the store and show them how to use the app.

The program goes live in the rest of the country beginning Oct. 21.

Toys 'R' Us's next experiment will involve "play labs" at select stores, where kids can sample toys and games and watch toy demonstrations.

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