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Demise of Toys R Us seen as opportunity for independent retailers

Demise of Toys R Us seen as opportunity for independent retailers

Owner of G. Willikers finds online competition harsher than ever
Demise of Toys R Us seen as opportunity for independent retailers
Christina Powell, general manager at G. Willikers in Saratoga Springs, is seen at the store on Wednesday, March 21.
Photographer: Erica Miller

SARATOGA SPRINGS — The impending demise of children’s favorite big-box retailer brings no pleasure to an independent toy store operator.

Nor does it bring any promise of increased business: Small toy stores face the same pressures that challenged retail giant Toys R Us, particularly competition from online sales.

Linda Ambrosino, longtime owner of three G. Willikers toy stores in the region, said the problems of Toys R Us have been obvious for a while.

“I was at Toy Fair in February, and there was a lot of talk about it,” she said, referring to one of two big annual toy industry trade shows.

Her fellow merchants pondered not just their own futures but their suppliers’ futures, Ambrosino said. If Toys R Us is unable to repay debts to manufacturers and suppliers, she explained, some may enter crises of their own. Others will be less willing to take chances on new products and just stick with licensed mass-market toys.

Small stores take chances on new and different toys, Ambosino said, and they look to fill a niche, rather than follow trends.

“We’re the ones bringing the new stuff,” she said. “I’m the one who takes a chance.”

If something doesn’t sell, she’ll move it around the store over a period of months, or even unpackage it and put it out for display.

That said, there are limits to what she can fit in her stores in Saratoga, Guilderland and Katonah.

“There’s some stuff we can’t carry; we don’t have the space.”

Toys R Us announced last week it was seeking bankruptcy court approval to wind down its U.S. business, liquidating the inventory of all 735 domestic stores. The company’s Babies R Us stores will shut down as well, under the bankruptcy plan.

No timetable for closures has been announced, though the first mass-layoff notices have been filed with the New York state Department of Labor -- for a handful of downstate stores.

In the Capital Region, there are Toys R Us stories in Colonie, Clifton Park and Queensbury, plus a Babies R Us in Latham.

The Record, a newspaper based near the New Jersey headquarters of Toys R Us, reported liquidation sales would begin Thursday, over the objections of about 50 toy manufacturers that are owed $450 million by the company.  

Foreign Toys R Us stores may survive in some form: The company is considering sales of its Canadian, European and Asian stores as going concerns. U.S. stores may even survive in some form: The company is exploring a scenario in which a sale of the Canadian stores would include up to 200 of the best-performing U.S. stores.

The vacuum is seen as an opportunity by some. The owner of the name of the defunct KB Toys brand was reported Tuesday to be planning its resurrection in the form of pop-up of stores in shopping centers to capture some of the holiday-season foot traffic Toys R Us enjoyed.

Amazon was reported Monday to be interested in some of the soon-to-be-closed stores for purposes other than toy stores.

Ambrosino said the decline and fall of Toys R Us presents an opportunity for G. Willikers and other small, independent toy retailers.

“I thought about this long and hard,” she said. “This is where the toy industry started; it started as toy sections in department stores, with the little guy.”

Ambrosino wants the industry to mount a campaign to bring Toys R Us shoppers to Main Street stores rather than online retailers.

“We’re fighting Amazon day in and day out,” she said, adding of her own three stores: “The obvious thing we have going for us is we’re in great locations.”

It’s the shopping public that will determine whether corporate giants complete their victory over the few remaining independents, Ambrosino said. She sees the battle every day in her own store, as customers come in to check out items in person, then go home and buy them online for less money. 

That’s called showrooming, and it has become particularly frequent in her store in recent years.

“We won’t last much longer with that going on,” Ambrosino said.

The Toy Association values U.S. toy sales at approximately $27 billion a year.

The statistics aggregator Statista puts the online share of sales at 22 percent in 2016. Mass merchants accounted for 42 percent, and specialty toy stores only 12 percent. Rounding out the picture were discount/dollar stores (4 percent), hobby/craft stores (3 percent), food or drug stores (2 percent), electronics stores (1 percent) and department stores (1 percent). “Other” accounted for 13 percent.

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