EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ – It was 11 a.m. six days before Christmas, and a bulletproof vest-clad security guard observed 120 masked shoppers lining up at the entrance to the last retailer in the American Dream mall: Toys “R” Us.
When workers opened two side doors, buyers burst in. Lauryn Dankin, 10, walking with her mother, Caren, grabbed a blue cart and was greeted with a sign:
“NOTICE: The stairs are not yet accessible.”
Neither the cafe nor the slide that starts on the second floor and drops down to the first were ready for customers. Lauryn walked past a sleight of hand wizard and approached Carl Zealer, who was working on a trick involving a worm on a string.
âI have a question,â she said. “Is it static or is it an illusion?” “
âIt’s an illusion,â Zealer said.
âOhhhh,â Lauryn said. âI just couldn’t tell. “
Toys “R” Us can also be confusing. Four years after filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and three years after closing its 735 stores, the brand Charles Lazarus launched in 1957 has resurrected in time for last-minute holiday shopping. Its first new store and mall, in East Rutherford, NJ, are betting on the strength of nostalgia’s grip, hoping a familiar retailer name will attract shoppers increasingly accustomed to shopping online. Toys “R” Us plans to follow the opening of the American Dream store with hundreds of mini-locations in Macy’s stores over the next year or so.
âWe sat down and thought, ‘We need a toy store! We believe in a toy store! ‘ Said Paul Ghermezian, a developer whose company, Triple Five, owns American Dream. âWe want a brand that prompts you to come for more than something small. “
As the lyrics to the store’s memorable theme song (âI’m a Kid of Toysâ R âUs!â) Painted on the steps, the music heard by American Dream buyers was remixed by the new owners. On the shelves, 10,000 toys ranged from ridiculous (putty) to sophisticated (the New Yorker covers puzzles). One board game – Mall Madness – was particularly meta. The name seemed to conjure both the struggles of retailing during the pandemic and the nightmare American Dream faced three months ago when its 16-story indoor ski slope, Big Snow, caught fire overnight. .
Yet, the faithful have come to witness the latest revival in retail.
“It must be heaven,” said Tynisha Day, 44, who woke up at 7 a.m., drove three hours from Baltimore with her two sisters and wore rollers in her hair as she did her hair. races. âWe have already finished our holiday shopping. We’re just here for the excitement!
The store’s iconic primary colors and images of its mascot, Geoffrey the Giraffe, are displayed as often as possible. The 20,000-square-foot store is close to Nickelodeon Universe – an indoor theme park with green mud and roller coasters – and the ice rink with a water park and “not-so-mini-golf” course.
Yehuda Shmidman is the Managing Director of Global WHP, the brand acquisition and management company that acquired a controlling stake in the parent company of Toys “R” Us in March. WHP, whose investors include Oaktree Capital Management, is one of several companies that buy well-known struggling brands and then seek to capitalize on the familiarity of brand names by licensing them. His other brands include Anne Klein and Joseph Abboud.
Mr. Shmidman, 40, grew up in Bergen County, which includes East Rutherford. His first trip to Toys “R” Us was in the nearby town of Paramus, a mall with two Macy’s stores four miles apart. He marveled at the full shelves from floor to ceiling.
âI didn’t know there were so many toys in the world,â he said. “It was such a mind-blowing experience – the days before the Internet.”
Toys “R” Us’s collapse in 2018 was painful not only for its loyal customers but also for its more than 30,000 employees, who lost their jobs. The retailer has become a case study in a private equity deal gone awry, as the firm’s investors loaded it with billions in debt and drove it into bankruptcy. While lawyers and advisers collected millions in fees during the bankruptcy process, his former employees struggled to secure severance pay.
Reminders of the brand’s fall into bankruptcy still exist nearby. Within a mile of American Dream, a Toys “R” Us sign remains on the billboard visible to drivers on Route 3 at the Harmon Meadow shopping complex. Lauryn Dankin’s family called the closure of the local Toys “R” Us store in Watchung, NJ, “one of our family’s darkest days.” Paramus also had one of the newer locations; a smaller and âreinventedâ store opened there in November 2019 to close in January 2021.
Whether fond memories of past shopping experiences are enough to sustain this version of Toys “R” Us remains to be seen.
âWe didn’t create the brand and we don’t change it,â Mr. Shmidman said. “All we do is bring it back to the Americans who have been looking forward to it.”
Large video screens in the American Dream store displayed endless looping footage of Geoffrey the Giraffe. When a Christmas tree appeared, he received a series of gift boxes wrapped with bows. One by one, the mascot unveiled a dump truck, a teddy bear and a scooter.
Then a question appeared on the screen: “What will Geoffrey open next?”
Next year, Shmidman said, he plans to start rolling out 400 Toys “R” Us stores in Macy’s stores. The two stores struck a deal in August, and Nata Dvir, Macy’s merchandising manager, said the partnership would allow Macy’s to “dramatically expand our footprint” with children.
When shoppers visited Santaland at Macy’s flagship store in Herald Square in Manhattan this season, they saw signage featuring Geoffrey and an ad, “Guess what’s happening at Macy’s!” Next to it was an instruction to buy toys on Macy’s website, which features the Toys “R” Us catalog. A Macy’s spokesperson declined to reveal how much physical space would be allocated. at Toys “R” Us, but said the “shop in the stores” would include merchandise and a children’s play area separated by age, interest and category.
“Coming Soon” is the most common phrase seen and heard in American Dream, and locals expect delays. For more than a decade, the mall has been in the throes of a postponement, only to open in phases from October 2019 to October 2020, when pandemic foot traffic was low. Next year, a Starbucks is slated to open in the mall, and the ski lifts, which have been closed for repairs since the fire, will reopen in 2022.
Toys “R” Us is the Russian retail nesting doll – a work in progress within a work in progress – and plans to have her slide and coffee ready in January.
On Tuesday, patrons heading to Toys “R” Us walked down a hallway lined with eclectic offerings, ranging from homemade cotton candy and popcorn to the Beef Jerky experience, which had a “Now Hiring” sign in front.
Curiosity seekers rushed into the toy store and the stairs were open, but at 3 p.m. employees closed the door and asked the new arrivals to line up. To celebrate again, a grand opening, complete with a ribbon cutting and a cake, was held at 3:30 pm More than 100 people waited in a line that stretched to the Wetzel pretzels.
“Oh, my God, who’s excited? Mr. Ghermezian, the developer, said. “I don’t know about you guys, but all I have on my mind is the jingle, right?” “
He led the guests in the theme song; the crowd wore the air a cappella.
Mr Shmidman said the remixed render played over the store’s speakers had a “pep 2021” and took “versions and versions and versions”.
âIf you get chills hearing it, we’ve nailed it,â he said. “If not? We’ll go back to the studio.
Jerry Arnold, 31, was the first to enter. A father of two, he grew up in East Rutherford and had been a regular at Toys “R” Us since the age of 4, buying Power Rangers and PlayStation. Frustrated with the time it took to complete the mall, he was surprised the toy store opened on Christmas week.
“I hope they stay alive this time,” he said.