Just weeks after Toys ‘R’ Us announced a major shutdown and months after the company declared bankruptcy in September, tragedy struck the chain. Its founder and former CEO Charles Lazarus passed away March 22. He was 94. The pioneering owner lived an interesting life, and changed some aspects of toy retail as we know it. Here’s what we know about the original Toys ‘R’ Us Kid.
1. Toys ‘R’’ Us grew out of his military service
Lazarus started the company in 1948 when he was 25, anticipating that the post-war baby boom would create demand for baby supplies and toys. When he returned from World War II, many of his war buddies said the same thing – they wanted to get home, get married, and start having kids. He decided to open a store that sold baby carriages, cribs, and other baby gear. Turns out that instinct was spot on.
Next: The logo we all know and love came out of his head, too.
2. The iconic ‘R’ was his idea
Lazarus first experimented with a nondescript children’s store, Children’s Bargain Town first. That store sold all kinds of kid-focused gear, but the real money lay in toys. As such, he opened his first store dedicated exclusively to toys in 1957. Lazarus called it Toys ‘R’ Us, but he turned the “R” around to make it look like a kid wrote the name. Later, Babies ‘R’ Us and Kids ‘R’ Us sprang from the same brand.
Next: The transition started with these unlikely origins.
3. It all started because of a broken doll
Early on, a woman asked Lazarus for some toys to go along with a crib, Entrepreneur reports. As a result, he added a few basic toys to his stock. Pretty soon, another customer came in to replace a smashed doll. Lazarus figured out that people who bought toys came back for more. Those who bought cribs or high chairs really only needed one.
Next: His coworkers compared him to this iconic figure.
4. He bore this similarity to Santa Claus
“He was the father of the toy business,” said Michael Goldstein, who succeed him as CEO of the company. He and father Christmas would have gotten along, with their affinity for making kids happy. “He knew the toys and loved the toys and loved the kids who would shop in the stores. His face lit up when he watched kids playing with toys.”
Next: His business model made him successful.
5. His store made history
As Lazarus expanded into a supermarket next door to his original storefront, he started lining the shelves with toys at bargain-basement prices. That came as a first for the industry. “We were probably the first ones selling toys and juvenile products at a discount,” Lazarus once said. The news of his store spread largely by word-of-mouth.
Former chief executive Gerard Storch called his boss “a pioneer in the big box movement … His business concept was as innovative as eCommerce is today,” he said. The store ran on Lazarus’ key principles: Having more toys than anyone else, selling them at great prices, and keeping more toys in stock than anyone else.
Next: The CEO learned his retail principles from someone close by.
6. Retail ran in the Lazarus family
Lazarus was born on Oct. 4, 1923, in Washington D.C. His parents raised him there too, above a bicycle shop run by his parents, Frank and Phoebe. When he returned from the war and decided to open his first store, he started there, too. Lazarus originally rented his father’s former bicycle-repair shop on the ground floor of his childhood home. His store outgrew that location, but he never forgot his roots.
Next: The basic principle of Toys ‘R’ Us seems deceptively simple.
7. Lazarus asked himself one simple question
When deciding what to stock, Lazarus relied on one easy question. What do children want to play with? “When you look at what the creativity of the toy market is, you have to have imagination, you have to think like a child,” he told a documentary filmmaker in a 2016 interview. By letting kids’ needs and wants lead instead of the fads of the day, Lazarus ensured that Toys ‘R’ Us catered to the very market it served.
Next: His sales practices also became revolutionary.
8. The founder figured out how to sell more toys
By creating stores with serpentine rows of shelves stacked to the rafters with toys, Lazarus created the impression that his store had a virtually limitless selection. Especially to pint-sized visitors, Toys ‘R’ Us looked like a toy mecca. He also figured out that, because toy popularity cycled rapidly, it kept kids coming back again and again. That is, as long as Toys ‘R’ Us stocked as much as it could.
Next: The innovator also used this relatively new medium to help his business.
9. TV killed the radio star, but kept Toys ‘R’ Us alive
When it came to selling toys, time was on Lazarus’ side. He used the growing medium to spread the word on Toys ‘R’ Us’ stock. Television advertising gave rise to the phenomenon of “hot toys,” or those kids just had to have, right then and there. Because Lazarus used TV to advertise his stock all the time, it helped sell his wares at traditionally off-peak times. That kept Toys ‘R’ Us alive all year round.
Next: The founder also used an unusual cost model.
10. For Lazarus, volume was the name of the game
Lazarus wanted his customers to feel that Toys ‘R’ Us always had the best prices, whether or not that rang true. Consequently, he often sold popular products for little or no profit, assuming it would all balance out.
For example, in 1977, an electronic game called “Simon” became one of the most popular toys going. Some stores took advantage of high demand and charged more than $30 for the toy. Lazarus, on the other hand, charged less than $20. He assumed that shoppers who nabbed a cheap Simon would believe everything else rang in at bargain prices. While that strategy eventually did not work out so well for the company, it leaves Lazarus a lasting legacy.
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