Geoffrey the Giraffe has left the building. Suitcase in one hand and final Toys-R-Us paycheque in the other, he’s off to the career transition service for unemployed mascots. I’m not going to add to the chorus of eulogies for this chain, and I don’t really know why it finally failed, but I do think TRU has done a pretty classy job of leaving the retail party.

Bizmarketer Elizabeth Williams Branding

Retail brand deaths are slow and terribly public, and much of the time they are messy. Sears, for example, took a decade to die, and by the time the last store turned out the lights, they were in the news, not for the loss of a once-great company, but for the shameful treatment of its retirees.

The end of Target’s woeful attempt to expand into Canada was no less messy and it began almost as soon as the first store opened with empty shelves and disenchanted employees.

But Toys-R-Us did things a little differently and I think we should take notes in case we ever need to plan an organizational funeral. They did three important things right: they said thank you, they let their employees grieve and they said so long. Let’s unpack the playbook a little.

Polite Brands Endure

Here is the touching final message on the Toys-R-Us website:

It’s beautifully written, it’s on-brand, it’s positive and in making it about customers, it acknowledges the emotional capital shoppers have put into the store for decades. It celebrates the brand’s central value of the power of play and it transports the reader right back to that over-lit blue and yellow wonderland full of Lego and princesses and remote control cars (yes, and crowded aisles, screaming babies, lost toddlers and the incomparable meltdown of a six-year-old who’s been told they can’t have something).

Sears, on the other hand, shut down comments on its Facebook page and offered this as a thank you.

Sears Canada has a long and well-documented history of being a great place to shop and work. Sears thanks its customers for their loyalty and support since 1953, when it began serving Canadians coast to coast under its then corporate name, Simpsons-Sears Ltd. Sears also extends heartfelt thanks to its associates, both current and former, who helped build the Company into what was, for much of its existence, Canada’s largest retailer, providing great value through quality products and exceptional services and outstanding prices. Sears earned a reputation of trust and goodwill by how its associates interacted with Canadians, including the Company’s significant financial and moral support of community groups and charitable organizations that reflected the interests of Sears customers.

Over the past 18 months, Sears Canada had embarked on a reinvention plan that had begun to gain traction with customers. Unfortunately, despite the outstanding efforts of dedicated associates across the Company, Sears Canada does not have the financial resources to provide it with the time necessary to complete its reinvention. We appreciate having had you as a customer.


Your friends at Sears Canada.

It’s not bad as these things go, and it does a good job of acknowledging employees, but the thing reads like a corporate history, and the final paragraph suggests that time was the real culprit, and it keeps the company, not its customers at the centre of the message.

For most retailers, the last message to customers looks like a receipt at the going out of business sale knocked together by the liquidator who gave the receiver the lowest bid. Customers become scavengers, picking at the remains of a place they no longer recognize. While the final hours at your local Toys-R-Us might well have smacked of hyenas finishing off a wildebeest, it was staffed by real TRU employees making the best of their last days on the job. Which brings me to the second thing they got right.

Employees Need to Grieve

In most companies, decline and fall happen to employees, not with employees. In the most extreme cases, they are laid off by the thousands or simply show up one day to find the place padlocked. While Toys-R-Us did its share of downsizing over the years, the final weeks were (at least to an outside observer) a textbook example of how to let employees grieve.

Stores were tweeting videos inviting customers to come to the close-out sale. This team held a final supper (with Geoffrey) in the store itself.

In allowing employees to own the final days on the job, TRU did the one thing almost all organizations forget to do, which is to make space for grief. This strategy, by the way, is key in managing any kind of change, not just big stuff like a shutdown. Wherever there is something lost – a colleague, a team, a manager or even a project – grief will follow. We’re human that way. One of the reasons change so often fails is because employees aren’t given time and permission to grieve what they perceive they have lost. TRU seems to have done it brilliantly. Yes, hundreds of people are out of work and that sucks, but they had the space to celebrate what they had done and to say goodbye in their own ways. And that is the other thing this brand got right: they said so long, but not necessarily goodbye.

So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, adieu…

Toys-R-Us brand and intellectual property assets will go on the auction block next month, and here in Canada, at least, there is some effort being made to keep things alive until they can regroup with more financing. Perhaps that’s why Geoffrey’s final tweet cryptically suggests there may be a second act.

Other TRU feeds similarly hint at the possibility of a resurrection. While #TRUBcontinued, #TRU4ever, etc. maybe a bit of wistful, wishful thinking, it nevertheless signals the remote possibility of another go.

Few brands have enjoyed a successful rebirth, though a few have been defibrillated back to life, such as Apple, Birkenstock and, heaven help us, Twinkies. I can’t think of a major retail brand that has come back from beyond in any meaningful way, though Montgomery Ward still has its catalogue, Circuit City has been threatening to come back for ages and I think Linens and Things persists online.

So the odds are slim that TRU will reincarnate as anything like its former self, but this brand has cleverly left the door open for something more.

There is always lots to learn from the failure of organizations, but from ToysRUs, Sears, and others, I think we learn some good lessons we can save for the day we may need to drag a brand through its last days.

  1. Say thank you to your customers
  2. Say thank you to your employees
  3. Put your customers and employees at the centre of all your messaging
  4. Find a way to not fu*k over your employees as your ship sinks
  5. Acknowledge that employees need to grieve, and do your best to let them do so in their own way
  6. Be classy until the last minute and then some
  7. Leave some room for someone else to come along and try again
  8. Give your community some warning, if you possibly can
  9. Even if it’s someone else’s fault you are circling the bowl, resist the urge to say so – see #6
  10. Never mind what the receivers or liquidators say, make the exit feel like your values are driving the bus right off that cliff.