Is the demise of Toys ‘R’ Us the death knell for traditional toys and games?

Patrick Marché
Sep 19, 2018 · 5 min read

Toy retail stalwart Toys ‘R’ Us recently announced it would be closing down - 70 years after its founding.

But was it tech that killed a once-thriving toy business? Are digital toys, VR headsets, apps and video games just far more exciting for today’s kids? Are trips to toy shops no longer an option for time-poor parents?

When we spoke to over 2,500 users - our bees - we found that for parents in the UK and US, it might just have been tech that killed the traditional toy, but not quite in the way you may think.

Real toys rule

Physical toys and games are still overwhelmingly popular for British and American parents - more popular even than digital/virtual games and toys. 7 in 10 British parents say they prefer physical toys, compared to 1 in 10 that prefer digital ones. In the US, 61% prefer physical toys, against 14% for digital.

Similarly, almost 9 in 10 (87%) of British parents agree that playing with physical games and toys has benefits for children that digital games do not. In the US, this figure is just over 8 in 10.

And what kind of physical toys and games do parents want to buy for their kids? Turns out, parents still want to nurture their children’s intellect and encourage learning and creativity. In both countries, the top 3 most popular toy/game categories are educational, followed by puzzles and then creative toys/games.

“I enjoy sitting down with my family to play a board game,” says a 31-year-old mother from the UK. “We have tried buying video games for the family, but they aren’t as enjoyable as a traditional game.”

And even though there is a wealth of digital games for younger children these days, parents of younger children are sticking with traditional toys - in fact they are even more likely to buy physical games and toys.

“Physical toys and games give me a chance to interact and watch my kids cognitive and motor skills develop. It’s also great fun quality time,” says another mother, aged 33 from the US.

But tech has still changed toys for good

So, the iPad and video games are not responsible for the demise of toys - parents say it is still very much toys over tech at playtime. But tech has indeed had a hand elsewhere in the changing of this industry, namely at the point of purchase.

When we asked parents where they buy their kids toys we found the majority, 77% in the UK and 61% in the US, do so online. The supermarket came in as a very close second for both the UK (73%) and US (56%).

Only 42% of British parents say they visit specialist toy stores, and in the US this figure is just 28%. Parents today are therefore twice as likely to buy toys online than they are to visit a store like Toys ‘R’ Us.

Where Toys ‘R’ Us missed a trick

In a recent article, the BBC noted that Toys ‘R’ Us failed to move with the times. Not only did it do too little to adapt to the growth of e-commerce, the stores themselves were no longer exciting places for kids to visit - nothing to capture their imagination.

But another area where the massive toy brand stumbled, perhaps, was capturing the imagination of adults. We found that adults also love to buy games and toys, and no, not just for kids: but for themselves too.

Overall, including non-parents, 55% in the US and 48% in the UK said they bought a toy or game for themselves within the last year. In fact, in both countries adults were roughly twice as likely to have bought a game for themselves than for a child.

Board games such as Monopoly and Scrabble, and card games like Cards Against Humanity, are overwhelmingly popular with adult consumers, as for them playing games is primarily a social activity.

For those without kids, 64% of Americans and 68% of Brits say they play games most with other friends. Relaxing at home or at a friend’s, family gatherings and festive occasions/public holidays were the top 3 most common occasions to play games. Festive occasions are especially popular with Brits.

The future of toys

Tech has not killed the toy industry, the demand is still very much there. What tech has done though is alter it for good. It is up to brands to be flexible and not shackle themselves to tradition or convention.

Despite the continuing popularity of toys, 2 in 5 told us they believed virtual or digital games will completely replace physical games in 20 years time. Just over 1 in 3 also said that society looks down on adults playing with physical toys/games. However, our findings demonstrate a dissonance between what people assume and how consumers are actually behaving.

It is this that brands should be careful of falling foul to. To navigate the turbulence that tech has brought to so many industries, it is vital that brands properly understand consumer behaviour.

In the case of the toy industry, innovation in digital games doesn’t mean an end to traditional games - far from it. But understanding that it is not just kids that enjoy toys and games is a departure from tradition that Toys ‘R’ Us could certainly have benefitted from.


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A quick word on our methodology: The figures in the article are taken from Streetbees community members in UK, US, India, Kenya, the Philippines and South Africa, carried out in August 2018. All of the data was collected by mobile and web surveys, and is accurate to within 4 percentage points 19 times out of 20.

Street Voice

Live stories from the Streetbees community

Patrick Marché

Written by

Data journalist at Streetbees - an independent research platform, founded on the principle of humanising how we collect data.

Street Voice

Live stories from the Streetbees community

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