Last week, in the air-conditioned comfort of one of the numerous luxurious malls in hot and humid Singapore, an overhead conversation between a Singaporean and her American friend went like this: "What is the best place to shop for toys for Christmas in Singapore?" "Why, it has to be Toys "R" Us!" said the Singaporean. The startled American exclaimed, "Didn't Toys "R" Us close all its stores?"
Not in Asia.
For a small island of 600 square kilometres, there are eleven Toys "R" Us stores in Singapore; four just opened in the last year. The National Capital Territory of Delhi is two and a half times in size and has three times as many people as Singapore.
China has more than 150 stores with plans to open another 30 within months. In Japan, business for the iconic toy store, which opened its first store in Washington, DC in 1957, is thriving with over 160 stores and a per store sales value 50-100 per cent higher than in the US. The Babies "R" Us brand is also a strong standalone business there.
Generally, people are not buying less toys. People are just moving their shopping online. According to Statista, total toys sales globally grew from USD 79.1 billion in 2012 to USD 88.8 in 2016. Toy sales has been growing at a rate of around three to four per cent annually in the last 10 years with some emerging markets seeing higher growth. For example, the NPD Group estimates that revenue for toy retailers grew 15 per cent in Mexico and 11 per cent in Brazil for the first half of this year. In the United States, toy industry revenue grew seven per cent during this period, probably with the liquidation of Toys R Us contributing positively to this.
Amazon and online retailers did not kill Toy "R" Us. Poor management did. In its haste to grow, Toys "R" Us saddled itself with a mountain of debt and in its final years spent too much of its money servicing debt. By then, its bonds were classified as "junk" and borrowing costs became unsustainable. As a result, Toys "R" Us did not have the money to invest in upgrading its brick-and-mortar stores. Neither was it able to develop a compelling online store. Their online website was the subject of numerous complaints from customers about poor usability.
In March this year, TRU Taj LLC, a debt issuing vehicle and subsidiary of Toys "R" Us which also owns its operations in Europe and Asia, started to seek a way of restructuring the Asian business which was doing relatively well. The Asian business is operated under Toys (Labuan) Holding which is 15 per cent owned by the Hong Kong-based Fung Group.
More recently, about a week ago, a deal was announced that holders of the TRU Taj LLC's senior secured notes, or the Taj note holders, are to acquire an 85 per cent stake in Toys (Labuan) Holding. The deal will separate the toy retailer's business in Asia from its US parent.
With the acquisition, valued at USD 900 million, holders of the TRU Taj LLC's senior secured notes will control a company that operates over 450 stores in Japan, Greater China and Southeast Asia, and over 85 licensed stores in the Philippines and Macau.
The Taj note holders and Fung Retailing, which holds the remaining 15 per cent in Toys (Labuan), have also agreed to new partnership terms, according to a statement by Toys (Labuan) on the deal. The retail arm of the Fung Group will acquire an additional six per cent stake in Toys (Labuan) from the Taj note holders to raise its interest to 21 per cent, making it the single largest shareholder.
Toys "R" Us Inc filed for bankruptcy protection in September 2017. The retailer's operations outside of the US and Canada, including about 255 licensed stores and joint venture partnerships in Asia, are not part of the Chapter 11 filing.
In India, Toys "R" Us has two stores in Bengaluru- one in Phoenix Market City and another in Vega City. It plans to own a store in New Delhi soon.
Toys "R" Us India is not part of the Asian set-up but part of Abu-Dhabi-based LuLu Group International, which has a masters franchise agreement with the US company. The original plan before the US Toys "R" Us bankruptcy announcement was to open 65 stores within a decade.
Is Toys "R" Us making the right decisions in Asia? Will Toys "Us" R survive in Asia and India?
If expansion plans are anything to go by, it does seem that Toys "R" Us has found the correct formula to succeed in Asia. However, they will do well to heed lessons learnt by their US parent by expanding at a sustainable pace and investing in the development of online sales channels. In India, it will have to find a way to wean middle class families off cheap China-made toys from mom-and-pop shops and make children interested in better made branded toys and electronic gadgets.
So far, the signs are positive; but we will have to wait to find out.