3317: Article

Employees, customers at Houston Toys ‘R’ Us bracing for closure

When Brandon Paul visits his mom at work, he likes to head straight for the back, toward the hot rods. Depending on his mood that day, he might hop in a BMW, a Hummer or a Star Wars landspeeder; a Barbie mobile or even a pontoon boat on wheels. He straps on a seatbelt and tests the steering and visibility. At home, he’s already got a Land Rover and a Jeep.

But 22-year-old Taj Paul, Brandon’s mom, doesn’t work at a dealership — no, she’s an assistant manager at the Toys “R” Us at the corner of Old Spanish Trail and Kirby, the only location inside Houston’s Loop 610.

When she heard that all 732 stores were closing, Taj realized that she and the dozens of other employees would need to find new work, but she was disappointed for Brandon, too.

“I have a two-year-old, and he loves this store,” Taj said. “He’s not going to be able to grow up and see all the toys.”

A litany of market trends have led to declining sales at brick-and-mortar Toys “R” Us stores across the U.S. The toy chain has faced growing competition from Target and Walmart, not to mention online shopping giant Amazon. Toys “R” Us also blamed the United States’ declining fertility rate for lower sales. The 70-year-old company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in September 2017 and announced plans to close a portion of its U.S. stores.

Less than six months later, Toys “R” Us updated that statement: It closed down all online shopping and implemented liquidation sales at all of its U.S. stores.

Now, it’s just a matter of months before the Medical Center location closes its doors for good. Posters boasting “Store Closing Sale!” and “Everything Must Go!” litter the store. But employees don’t know what’s next — the closing date, which also marks their first date of unemployment, is all up to the banks, Taj said.

“Everybody has bills and things,” she said. “It’s kind of hard leaving a job and trying to find another job. Hopefully they’ll keep some stores open… hopefully.”

Leaving Toys “R” Us will be especially difficult for Taj because her mom also worked at a location in Cleveland, Ohio when she was Brandon’s age, she said. Now he won’t be able to carry those same fond memories.

The liquidation sale has some customers getting aggressive over prices, one associate said, but overall, business has not changed much at this location. Many of the regulars come in to buy toys for children at hospitals in the Texas Medical Center, Taj said.

“We get the same customers pretty much every day,” she said. “It’s not really the big sale that everybody’s wanting. It’s 10, 20, 30 percent off. That’s an everyday sale in any store.”

On Monday morning, Victoria Cabrera was shopping for soccer balls and inflatables for her grandchildren’s upcoming party. She said the Old Spanish Trail location is convenient; it’s close to the other places she shops, and the selection is unmatched.

“Walmart and Target, they don’t have the toys that they have over here,” Cabrera said. “Not as big of a selection.”

While Cabrera calls herself a fairly regular shopper at Toys “R” Us, Taj said there has been an uptick in the number of new customers asking about discounts on video games, Legos and power wheels, the mini cars that Brandon loves to test drive. So far, those newcomers have mostly walked away disappointed by the markdowns, which only reach 10 percent on Lego sets.

Shirley Anne Miller shared the same disappointments as Cabrera about the chain closing down. While visiting from Cincinnati, Miller knew she could swing by Toys “R” Us and grab a Power Rangers toy for her great-grandson without worrying if it would be in stock. She said Toys “R” Us stores are reliably easy to shop in, between their wide selections and clear layouts.

So where will Miller go once Toys “R” Us closes for good?

“There aren’t any toy stores left that we know of in our area,” she answered. “I don’t know what I’m gonna do.”