What Toys ‘R’ Us can teach us about ourselves

Not only was I a Toys ‘R’ Us kid, but I was also a Toys ‘R’ Us adult.

My first semester in college I decided to find a job. I was living at home and commuting to school, but needed something to pay for gas and match my parents for the tuition cost. There was a job board in the registrar’s office, so I made my way down there to see what was available. As you might have guessed, this was just before the web had really taken off; I had to go look in person.

It was October, and that job board was posting for a seasonal job at Toys ‘R’ Us. It sounded fun, and I figured that if I had to work, it might as well be fun. I got hired, and although it was a seasonal job they extended an offer to me to stay beyond and become a regular part-time employee. I was thrilled.

Working at Toys ‘R’ Us was a lot of fun. I enjoyed the many different types of customers that came in the store, and I enjoyed even moreso the people I worked with. Even though the action figure aisle was a horrible mess at the end of business every day, I enjoyed cleaning that up, too. Well, except the Power Rangers, because I don’t like Power Rangers. I worked there for 2.5 years, took a little time off, then came back for another 2.5 years. I think I worked almost every position in the store and had a blast.

So you can probably guess that I was saddened to hear the news: after 70 years in business, Toys ‘R’ Us will close or sell all U.S. stores. Since the announcement, there has been a lot of discussion about what did in the retailer. But the story I found most compelling was that it wasn’t Amazon, it wasn’t online shopping, and it wasn’t poor branding: the biggest problem was debt.

The company’s biggest problem: It was saddled with billions of dollars in debt. That debt stopped it from making the necessary investment in stores. And that meant an unpleasant shopping experience that doomed the chain. – Amazon didn’t kill Toys ‘R’ Us. Here’s what did, CNN Money

As an adult with kids, I have made a few trips to the beloved toy store looking for a certain something for the kids. We’ve bought bikes there, giant stuffed animals, Lego sets, and other items. I certainly noticed the derelict appearance of the store up the road from us. It wasn’t bad — it needed some fresh paint an some updated technology — but it was certainly noticeable.

Therein lies the lesson: like Toys ‘R’ Us, if you have debt, it could lead to putting off necessary investing in yourself in order to keep making the minimum payments. What could Toys ‘R’ Us had done if it didn’t have billions of dollars in debt? Maybe it could have created an unrivaled digital shopping experience. The ad jingle, “I don’t want to grow up/I’m a Toys ‘R’ Us kid” is ingrained in a lot of minds, but perhaps they could have expanded their marketing efforts so that no one would dare think of going anywhere else for toys (or baby items, for that matter). I mean, really: with names like Toys ‘R’ Us and Babies ‘R’ Us, the only way you can mess that up is if you are too burdened to do any better.

Just like us individuals with debt, we have so many opportunities at our disposal it’s hard to mess it up. Sure, you have to do the work. But there are better opportunities all around you if you know how to look, and if you aren’t shackled with (usually self-inflicted) overwhelming odds. Like Toys ‘R’ Us, if we aren’t looking for the opportunities, and if we’re carrying too much debt, a changing tide can crush us.

Three years ago, I switched from a “stable” job in a sector I had been in for almost a decade. I had worked in government for nine years, and then an opportunity came to work in the private sector at a company I greatly admired. There was a catch: all the things I got used to working in government would not immediately be available to me at my new job. I had to start out as a contractor. That meant I had no paid time off, no vacation days, and no sick hours. It didn’t have retirement benefits or health insurance. I had to go find health insurance for my family of five on my own. It wasn’t a salaried paycheck: I got paid for the hours I worked, period. If I didn’t work 40 hours, then I didn’t get paid for 40 hours.

It ended up being one of the best professional decisions I have made to date.

I remember thinking at the time that it was similar to my beginning at Toys ‘R’ Us. I wasn’t guaranteed a more permanent position, but I was given the opportunity to prove myself. Just like at Toys ‘R’ Us, I ended up with the better gig 1.5 years later, coupled with a better salary, benefits, awesome health insurance, paid time off, and great people to work with.

And as it turns out, I have a lot of fun at my work, too.

So my lessons from Toys ‘R’ Us are twofold: don’t get saddled down with debt, because it will keep you from investing in yourself. And, when an opportunity comes, learn how to look for it and take a chance.

I’m saddened by the loss of Toys ‘R’ Us. May we all never grow up, not too much, anyway.

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