Shopping for nostalgia: Toys R Us lures Michigan fans to Canada

Breana Noble
The Detroit News
Kevin Furlong, left, and his fiancé Samantha Bailey traveled from Jackson, Michigan to shop for Christmas presents at the Toys "R" Us on Howard Avenue in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. Bailey and Furlong signed up to donate a gift through the Salvation Army's Angel Tree Christmas Program and were assigned to shop for a one-year-old girl.

Some Michiganians don't want to grow up. They still want to be Toys R Us kids.

So with Geoffrey the Giraffe going the way of the dodo bird in the United States ahead of the holidays, some American shoppers missing the toy retailer are crossing the border into Canada to relive their Christmas seasons past. 

There, 82 Toys R Us locations remain, including a nearby Windsor store for Michigan shoppers.

"I think it’s funny we have to go to a foreign country to buy Christmas presents," said Samantha Bailey, 26, who traveled to Windsor from Jackson with her fiance, Kevin Furlong, on a recent Saturday.

It was strange stepping inside a Toys R Us store again, said Bailey, who grew up visiting the toy store chain. She said she was sad to see the one close at Jackson Crossing shopping mall near her. She visited that store during its final days earlier this year. 

The toy chain, founded in 1957 in United States, closed the remainder of its 700-plus stores across the United States in June after a failed rescue effort to save it from debt.

Bailey said they made a daylong trip to Windsor with the toy store visit in their plans. The couple was shopping for a 2-year-old girl as part of the Salvation Army's Angel Tree Christmas Program.

"It’s nice to have a wall of baby dolls in front of you," she said. "Since the girl we have is only 2, it’s nicer to have a bigger selection so we can find something for the young kids. It narrows things down for us."

A full parking lot at the Toys "R" Us on Howard Ave. on Saturday, Dec. 8, 2018 in Windsor, Ont.

Melanie Teed-Murch, president of Toys R Us and Babies R Us Canada, said business has picked up at border stores since the closures in the United States.

“There is nostalgia to this brand,” Teed-Murch said. “We have a great heritage. Every customer I talk to gives a story about the first time they remember going to Toys R Us, who they were with, what toy they got. We really look to tap into those memories and remind our Canadian and our U.S. customers how great our brand is.”

The company in Canada is owned by Fairfax Financial Holdings, which acquired the stores in May. Canada, behind Asia, has been the second most profitable division of the toy retailer.

Fairfax has invested 51 million Canadian dollars into the business since May 31, including in stores, marketing, IT, employees and more.

Teed-Murch said Toys R Us has received an outpouring of support on social media, and there’s been an increase in U.S. members in the Canadian loyalty program, she said.

“There is definitely a craving for that experience in Canada from the U.S.,” she said. “We’re so grateful to be here and let people know we are here to play and here to stay."

It’s nostalgia that’s driving customers from Michigan to the Canadian stores, but it may not last long, said Erik Gordon, professor of business at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business.

“I don’t think the go-to-Windsor thing is going to be long-lived unless you go for other things,” Gordon said. “It’s not the easiest, most fun trip, and you’re probably not starting your trip on this side of the bridge. You’re starting your trip wherever you live. You’re starting your trip in Beverly Hills or Dearborn.

"I think a year of nostalgia one last time will be the big burst, and this time next year, the folks who did it this year will probably think twice.”

Numerous retailers such as Walmart, Meijer and Kohl’s have increased their toy selections during the holiday season. The benefit of going to Toys R Us in Canada, Gordon said, is the large toy selection.

“If you buy something for somebody who is not your kid — your niece or nephew, somebody where you’re not sure what to get — and you want to browse up and down the aisles, then going over to Toys R Us probably makes sense because nobody has as many aisles of toys as they have,” he said.

Teed-Murch said news about Toys R Us closing in the United States has affected business, mostly when it comes to registries. They’ve seen fewer of those.

“You want to know they will be there,” she said.

For shoppers who visit the store in Canada, they’ll find the chain has reintroduced Geoffrey the Giraffe as a 3D figure and its old jingle into its marketing tools.

Though all of their marketing has been focused on Canada right now, Teed-Murch didn’t rule out possibility marketing to the United States in the future.

“We’ve done an across Canada tour letting people know we’re in business,” she said. “There has been some confusion. It’s the borderless nature of news. Through PR and word of mouth, we’re letting our customers know that we are here to stay and play."

Toys R Us does not deliver to the United States, but Teed-Murch said that could change in the future. U.S. customers who want something shipped can ship it to a store and pick it up there.

Teed-Murch said unlike in the United States, Canada doesn’t have any standalone Babies R Us stores. They are either connected side by side or there is a baby department.

“That’s really integral to our success,” she said. “We’re recruiting those first-time parents and attempting to demystify what you need. We help them from the start and then bring them to the toy side. That’s really been a focus over the last decade.”

In the new year, the company is looking to introduce deferred payment programs and birthday party and community rooms.

Company officials also are going all in on being Canadian owned and operated, adding the maple leaf to the R in the logo.

“It is really resonating will our Canadian customers that were loud and proud 100 percent Canadian owned and operated," Teed-Murch said. "We want to show our customers that we are not going anywhere.”