Behind Toys “R” Us and Mattel’s retail partnership

How the toy retailer and toy manufacturer have worked together to ring in Barbie's 60th.

tessaThese days, busy parents can easily buy toys for their kids on their smartphones on their way to work. So Toys “R” Us Canada has to do more to compete, acknowledges president Melanie Teed-Murch. And recent in-store events in partnership with Mattel for Barbie’s 60th birthday was one way it chose to celebrate the legacy of two iconic brands that have both undergone big changes in a bid to stay relevant with the next generation.

The dominance of global retail behemoths like Amazon and Walmart mean smaller retailers like Toys “R” Us Canada have to differentiate themselves with something other than price-matching to stand out in a competitive space. The toy retailer shuttered all stores in the U.S. after filing liquidation in early 2018, although there’s been some rumbling that the once-beloved brand may attempt a comeback stateside.

On this side of the border, Toys “R” Us Canada is now a part of Toronto-based Fairfax Financial after the holding company completed its $300 million acquisition of the retailer last June. Since then, the Canadian company has launched a campaign to let Canadians know that its 82 bricks-and-mortar stores, plus one pop-up shop and an online store, are still very much open for business.

A partnership as strong as Barbie’s and Ken’s
While Barbie and Ken once officially broke up (only to get back together), the relationship between Toys “R” Us and Barbie’s Canadian division has been going strong since the toy retailer first opened its doors here in 1984, says Riza Javellana, director of marketing at Mattel.

Barbie’s birthday happened to coincide with this year’s International Women’s Day weekend-long celebrations on March 9, so the toy manufacturer and toy retailer chose to take advantage of this coincidence. Starting last October, the brands kicked off a promotion to offer a new Barbie for 60 weeks in a row in honour of the 60th anniversary. Barbie was already running its “You Can Be Anything” campaign, which is one of several attempts by Mattel to address critiques that the petite, blonde doll historically perpetuated the idea that a woman’s worth was based on her looks. Barbie dolls have now had more than 200 careers, underscoring that women “can be anything.”

Tess Virtue BarbieThe Barbie birthday celebrations gained more steam this month when seven Toys “R” Us stores hosted several high-profile Canadian female role models that little girls and boys can look up to. Among the high-wattage stars at the Sherway Gardens in-store event in Etobicoke, Ont., was Canadian ice dancer Tessa Virtue (main image). Hundreds of people attended the Sherway event and the message of female empowerment was then amplified on social media. Virtue’s Instagram feed included a photo gallery and a video featuring the Barbie in her likeness tucked into bed after a long day of working (left). The video garnered more than 93,000 views, while the photo gallery got almost 43,000 likes.

All of that promotion, both online and in-person, has led to double-digit growth for the Barbie brand in Toys “R” Us stores over the course of the promotion so far, and the brand saw close to triple-digit growth the weekend of the March store events, says Javellana.

While in-store experiences are very important to Mattel, offering and measuring an omnichannel experience is also top of mind. The female-empowerment message throughout the campaign was amplified on social media and CRM was used to track the effectiveness of targeted messaging, says Javellana.

A bricks-and-mortar brand in an online world
Toys “R” US Canada is celebrating its own birthday this year, hitting 35 years in business. Teed-Murch says the retailer will mark the occasion with promotional efforts in a bid to let Canadians of all ages celebrate the past, while letting them know that “we’re going to be here for 35 more.”

And a big part of the strategy to ensure Toys “R” Us Canada is around for decades to come is a renewed focus on its online store.

“The lack of [online] investment in the last four-to-five years has really hurt our shopping experience,” admits Teed-Murch. The president says they have the full backing, and significant investment, from Fairfax to completely revamp the online shopping experience for Toys “R” Us customers, with the relaunch of its online store set for late summer.

“We are absolutely just getting started,” says Teed-Murch. “We will have more partnerships with vendors to authentically leverage [their] messaging for them…  Listening to parents, [they are] yearning for connection with their kids, it’s that desire to unplug the electronics. Today we place far more [importance] on experiences.”