How to Reach Disenfranchised Shoppers

by Phil Wrzesinski

It was September of 1993 when my dad got the call. I had started working full-time at our toy store in Jackson, Michigan, just a few months earlier, in April. We had heard rumors of a big store coming to Jackson in the fall. Most people speculated it would be Walmart, but at the start of the fourth quarter, they announced the impending arrival of Toys “R” Us.

While we had been hearing talk about TRU, we never expected it to move into our market. We were too small – the company always said it wanted locations in markets that served 250,000 people or more. The population of our entire county was only 150,000.

I was standing in my dad’s office when the reporter from the local newspaper called. She asked, “You’ve heard about Toys “R” Us?”
“Yes, I have,” my father replied.
“So, when do you think you’ll close?”

She didn’t ask if we would close. She asked when. My dad’s response was classic: “I don’t know. I just turned 50 and don’t have any plans to retire soon. My son just started working here a few months ago. Maybe you should ask him.”

That Christmas season, Toys “R” Us took a chunk out of our sales at Toy House and Baby Too. We were expecting that. By March, our sales had returned to pre-TRU levels, and we never looked back.

From that story, you could surmise that Toys “R” Us had its customer base and we had ours and never the twain shall meet. The reality was that their customers were quite similar to ours.

The real culprit

While the general public believes that Walmart and Amazon caused TRU’s failure, and that most of its customers will go to those two outlets, you and I know that the real culprit was the huge debt load.

Last year, Toys “R” Us was actually profitable, but nowhere near profitable enough to pay the huge interest payments on their debt, unfortunately. They did more than $7 billion in sales and recorded more than 100 million transactions! That is a lot of customers who didn’t choose Walmart or Amazon.

Let’s face it: Walmart was already cheaper than Toys “R” Us. Everyone knew it. Amazon was mostly cheaper and had a wider selection. You didn’t have to leave home. All the same, 100 million-plus people chose Toys “R” Us. They did so because of Selection and Experience.

The “Selection” Crowd

Sure, Amazon has a larger overall selection of toys, but browsing toys on the Internet is nowhere near as fun as seeing them in a store. In a store, actually, you see things you would never imagine searching for online. In the store, you get to touch and feel and see how things look in person.

Toys “R” Us drew customers who wanted to browse the aisles, look for hidden gems, discover new and unique items, and touch and feel the merchandise. Those customers weren’t concerned as much with price as they were with getting the wrong item. They believed Toys “R” Us had the largest selection they could view under one roof, and they went there to be inspired.

You can win these customers over by showing off your fun, quirky, hand-selected, well-chosen, curated, unique, diverse selection, and highlighting the way your store also contains hidden treasures, plus amazing tools for development and toys they never knew existed.

You can win these customers over with your hands-on demonstrations and samples, and by urging them to try out your toys themselves. Ask them, “Where else can you play with toys before you buy them? Where else can you touch and feel them, see how they work, and learn how to play with them?” The answer today is, “Right here in a specialty toy store.”

My grandfather ran an ad back in 1955 that encouraged people to “Come in for a looking trip!” In other words, come in and play, even if you don’t expect to buy. He knew that if he could get shoppers in the door, he could wow them with his selection.

You can win these customers over by showing them how your knowledgeable and well-trained staff helps them navigate your aisles to find the right products to meet their needs. (If they didn’t want help exploring and discovering, they would already be on Amazon.)

You can win the “Selection” crowd over without having to change your store’s selection! Those customers weren’t going to TRU because of a particular product or brand it carried. The customer who knew exactly what she wanted was more likely to go to Walmart for price or Amazon for convenience. The Toys “R” Us Selection crowd went for the exploration, believing they could choose from a variety of options. Show them your variety of options and explain why you chose them. They won’t want to shop anywhere else.

The “Experience” Crowd

If you read any of the comments after the recent articles about Toys “R” Us, you would find that they fell neatly into two categories –
1. TRU was over-priced and the stores were a mess and
2. “I loved taking my kids there and will miss having that experience.”

The first group had already left Toys “R” Us for Walmart and Amazon. The second group is now looking for a new place to have that experience – a place to go for the fun of it, for the exploration, for the memories. Specialty toy retailers know that group intimately because they are our customers, too.

You and I can argue all we want to about whether the typical Toys “R” Us store was all that fun. It is a pointless debate. Most people were comparing the TRU experience to the one they got at Walmart, not at your store.

What is important to remember is that nostalgia is a powerful ally in winning them over. Your store evokes the nostalgia of birthday parties and Christmas. Make sure you provide meaningful experiences for children picking out their own birthday gifts, grandparents with grandkids on a shopping spree, and new couples buying a basket of toys for their babies’ first Easter. Events like these evoke powerful, emotional images that cannot be experienced shopping with Amazon or at Walmart.

Just invite them to all the events and activities you host – the story times, the game nights, the make-and-take crafts, the Neighborhood Toy Store Days and other special events. You may have to expand your marketing of them, but if you do I think you will find plenty of new customers looking for those kinds of experiences.

Reach former Toys “R” Us customers in a meaningful way

If Toys “R” Us customers aren’t so different from your customers, why aren’t they already shopping at your store? Two reasons –
1. They don’t know you.
2. They think they know you.

The first group just hasn’t heard of you yet. They had their toy store to shop in and they didn’t need someplace new. Your advertising never reached their eyes or ears. Maybe they just moved to town and went with something familiar, or maybe they never knew about independent toy stores when they were kids.

This is the easy group to reach. Now that TRU is closing, they are looking for someplace new. Any extra advertising you do about selection or experience is going to resonate with this crowd.

The second group is going to be tougher to convince. They believe four things about you:
• you’re small with a small selection;
• everything in your store is overpriced;
• you only sell expensive stuff and
• you only sell boring “educational” stuff.

Rather than trying to win this crowd with traditional advertising they will never believe, enlist the help of your current customers to create powerful and positive word-of-mouth. The great things they say about your store have the ability to straighten out misperceptions quicker than any other advertising method you could use.

At ASTRA Marketplace & Academy in June, I will present a session called, “How to Generate Word-of-Mouth Advertising” with a specific emphasis on how to win over the Toys “R” Us customers. You’ll walk out of there with ideas you can use to get people talking the day you get back from New Orleans.

Last year, Toys “R” Us had more than 100-million customers. About half of them were there for electronics. Another 25 percent were shopping for baby gear. That still leaves 25-million customers looking for a healthy toy selection and a shopping experience. Before the holidays hit, make sure they find your store.

Former retailer Phil Wrzesinski is a speaker, author and retail educator. For more information, visit or call 517-937-3213.

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