AMELIA, Ohio — The giraffe was supposed to be long gone, but here he is, beaming on the cardboard displays inside a Kroger.
Kids, bundled up and rosy-cheeked, bound toward the toys and circle the displays like predators. They paw at the boxes, leaving fingerprints on the plastic. Some clutch toys to their chests before they begin pretty-pleasing.
“Mom,” one boy with a buzz cut yells, lofting an action figure. “Look, they have Venom!”
“I am not talking about this right now,” his mother says, but she mouths the name on the box and nods, before whisking her son toward the pharmacy.
Parents pushing shopping carts rubberneck as they walk by the menagerie. Some smile in recognition. Others squint, eyeing the giraffe and his toys skeptically. That couldn’t be, could it?
It is. The beloved mascot, the array of toys, the bright, blocky lettering spelling out “Geoffrey’s Toy Box” are all seeds of the complicated comeback of Toys R Us.
Toys R Us’s fall was a long one, marked by a botched buyout, mountainous debt and a losing battle with big-box and online competitors. After filing for bankruptcy in September 2017, the toy store that had delighted kids for six decades announced in March it would be closing its doors, leaving 33,000 employees jobless.
Then, as retailers geared up for the lucrative first holiday without Toys R Us, the company rose from the grave. The hedge funds that own its assets filed paperwork in October to hang on to the Toys R Us and Babies R Us brand names, Web domains and mascot Geoffrey the Giraffe while considering “a new, operating Toys R Us and Babies R Us branding company.”
A month later, Kroger announced it would partner with Geoffrey, the subsidiary for Toys R Us intellectual property, to bring pop-up toy shops to 600 of its stores through the holidays. The pop-ups carry 35 toys from six brands that were once exclusive to Toys R Us, including Imaginarium, Just Like Home and Journey Girls.
“I’ve never seen something in our stores that our customers are so excited about,” said Erin Rolfes, a corporate affairs manager for Kroger. “It was disappointing for everyone to hear Toys R Us went bankrupt. And the idea of bringing it back in a hometown store like Kroger, well it gives a great sense of nostalgia and it’s a good opportunity to introduce Geoffrey’s Toy Box.”
But while some customers revel in this return, the news was far less welcome for legions of former employees. Seeing the brand resurrected while so many families struggle after losing their jobs is gutting, said Carrie Gleason, campaign manager for the worker advocacy group Rise Up Retail, which works with ex-Toys R Us employees.
“It’s hard to explain how it feels that the people responsible for liquidating the company are the ones that are doing this,” said Anthony Kittleson, who was laid off, along with his fiancee, after years of working at Toys R Us. “It feels like a slap in the face.”
After he found out about the Geoffrey’s Toy Box pop-ups, Kittleson and his family went to their local Kroger in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., to protest. Families in Arizona, Washington, Ohio and elsewhere in California have done the same, Gleason said.
Kittleson propped his 7-month-old daughter Gemma up on the toy display with a sign that said, “I’ll never get to be a Toys R Us kid because of Solus and Angelo Gordon,” two of the hedge funds that now own the company. Solus Alternative Asset Management and Angelo Gordon & Company did not respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post.
“Putting my daughter’s face in front of that display was kind of our way of saying, ‘Hey, these are the people you hurt,’” Kittleson said.
While Geoffrey’s Toy Box is notable for marking the possible comeback of Toys R Us, it’s unlikely that it’ll capture much of the holiday toy market because of its limited offerings, according to Linda Bolton Weiser, an analyst with D.A. Davidson. Kids are rigid about their Christmas lists and aren’t usually interested in products they don’t recognize. The brands Geoffrey’s Toy Box is offering don’t have much name recognition, Bolton Weiser said.
“Kids are gonna want the Hot Wheels and Barbies and Nerf and other licensed products,” Bolton Weiser said. Geoffrey’s Toy Box “isn’t carrying the products that would let them compete with the diversified retailers. It’s immaterial in the whole retail landscape.”
The primary customer for the pop-ups will be “convenience buyers," Bolton Weiser said, who need something fast and aren’t sure what to get. Sure, some customers will feel warm and fuzzy when they lay eyes on Geoffrey, but that probably won’t be enough to drive significant sales.
“Nostalgia only goes so far,” Bolton Weiser said. “It wasn’t enough to keep Toys R Us in business.”
Tuesday night, in an eastern Cincinnati Kroger, Rosemary Voyles rifled through boxes of Journey Girls dolls. The 73-year-old didn’t particularly care that the pop-up was Toys R Us-related (she had avoided it before because of the crowds and chaos). Now, she was on the hunt for a cheaper substitute to the pricey American Girl doll her granddaughter wanted.
“I’m hoping she’ll be satisfied if they have a doll named Amy," Voyles said. "That’s her name.”
All the dolls were named Dana and Meredith, so she moved on. She wasn’t looking for gifts for her older grandson, because she knew he wanted a particular name-brand model car that wasn’t on the shelves here. But her 3-year-old grandson would be satisfied with anything that buzzed or moved, she reasoned. She picked up a blue plastic saw that boasted “realistic blade action” on the box.
“This’ll work well enough," she mused, and tossed it in her cart along with the fixings for Thanksgiving dinner.