View from the C-Suite: Having ‘fun’ with Toys ‘R’ Us

The chain's new owner believes it can steal market share by creating exciting environments for its best customer: kids.

Toys R Us

More than most investors and brand builders, Doug Putman likes to have fun.

It’s one of the reasons his company, Putman Investments, purchased Sunrise Records in 2014 and expanded the business a few years later by acquiring former HMV locations.

It’s no stretch to believe that penchant was at least partially behind his decision to launch a chain of tea shops, known as T. Kettle, out of former DavidsTea locations last year.

And it’s one the reasons his latest purchases – that of Toys ‘R’ Us and Babies ‘R’ Us Canada from Fairfax Financial – are perhaps the most fitting of his recent ventures.

Fairfax bought Toys ‘R’ Us Canada in 2018, following the bankruptcy proceedings of its former U.S. parent company. Since then, Putman says Fairfax had managed the business well, running a “best-in-class” curbside pickup service, for example.

But the entrepreneur believes there’s still untapped potential in the Toys ‘R’ Us and Babies ‘R’ Us brands. And it ultimately all comes back to having fun.

“We look at a lot of different business opportunities. And of course, [first], we want to find something that we believe we can make money on. But it’s got to be something that’s interesting to us, that we think would be enjoyable to do,” he says of his company’s portfolio investment strategy. “And if it kind of fits those boxes – it’s an interesting challenge, or it’s a fun business idea, and we think we can make a return on it, then we’re willing to do it.”

Toys R Us

What do you think is the money-making opportunity with Toys ‘R’ Us and Babies ‘R’ Us, specifically? 

[The toy category] is growing well, which is great. We believe it’s going to keep growing. We feel pretty comfortable that more and more parents want something that is not digital. They want to get their kids away from screens. And so I think we’re gonna see that continue to grow. The outdoor space has been phenomenal. Even me as a parent, the amount of stuff I bought for outside – from sandboxes to swing sets –it just shows the growth is there.

And we think there’s some growth from opening more stores. But overall, I think we can just get a bit more market share. And the way we get market share from Amazon or anyone else is by making our environment more fun for kids, and not just being a transactional store, where we say, ‘Hey, we have this toy, it’s this price, come and buy it.’ We need to make it so that when you come in, it’s a lot more fun, whether it’s playing with some of the toys, whether it’s Geoffrey the Giraffe in costume, whether it’s tea parties, whatever it is – we need to do those things.

How will you build a more enjoyable environment for your customers? 

We’re a toy store, so it should be fun from day one. The easy things are the costumes. For example, I brought my two-year-old [to one of our stores] and there was Geoffrey dressed up in a costume, and she talked about it for weeks. ‘Where does Geoffrey live? Can we go back and see Geoffrey?’ That is such an easy thing to do.

But we’ve got a store that’s full of toys, and you need to build play with more of them. That’s the simple thing – all kids want to do is play. Our stores will need to reflect exactly how a child sees the world – which is fun, exciting. So instead of having product just sitting there, [let's] crack some of it open. Yes, we’re selling things, but we’re also having fun while we’re there.

What have you learned from your previous experiences – be it through building Everest Toys, turning around Sunrise Records and HMV or launching T. Kettle – that will help you with your latest acquisitions? 

Everything we’ve ever done has given us some idea of how to be better. Owning businesses like Sunrise or HMV – when we bought them they were in such turmoil – it helps you narrow in on the real issues of a business. T. Kettle obviously helped us learn how to imagine a brand from start to finish. And our toy business [Everest Toys] obviously helps us understand the toy industry and the challenges it has.

The reality is, it’s a tough business; the trends change so fast. From that, you learn that you need to react right away, because in a couple months, kids can be done playing with that toy. So each business has helped us. And we feel that with all the knowledge we have from these businesses that we’ll be able to do great things with Toys “R” Us and Babies “R” Us.

Turning a company around typically requires a substantial investment in brand and marketing. What do you have planned on those fronts? 

We’re always going to spend money on marketing and getting more brand awareness and keeping the brand awareness we have. Where you end up wanting to spend money is – once you’ve made the changes to make your stores more fun and more enjoyable – convincing those customers to come back.

Look, it’s easy to order from Amazon – you click and it comes with your groceries and everything else that you’re ordering. It seems so simple. But, I think we have to impress that we’re Canadian-owned, we support the communities that we’re in, and that it’s worth the extra step of ordering from us. So that’s where you spend money, and we’ve got to do it right away, saying, ‘Support us. We’re local. We support communities.’

We’re also coming into Christmas, so we’re going to spend a lot of money promoting the different products we have and what we’re doing. When we [take over a business], we typically want to implement changes in 30 or 60 days. So when we talk about making stores a bit more of an experience and a bit more fun, these are things that we expect to deliver on in September. So, pretty quickly we will make those changes and then start investing in letting customers know they should try us again.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. It is part of a series for Strategy C-Suite, a weekly briefing on how Canada’s brand leaders are responding to market challenges and acting on new opportunities.