Toys “R” Us has re-opened its doors, launching the first of two new stores planned for the holiday season after closing 800 of them last year. You might think, great, it’s time to become a Toys “R” Us kid again, but I’d keep thinking like a grownup for a bit longer. Something’s different about these new stores.
The first new Toys “R” Us store opened on November 30 at the Garden State Plaza mall in Paramus, New Jersey. The 6,000-square foot space is designed for experience play, with rooms dedicated to popular toys and brands, like Lego, Nerf, Paw Patrol, and LOL Surprise. Kids can test out toys before buying them—if they’re not available in the store’s limited stock, there are several interactive screens scattered throughout the store to make online purchases on the Toys “R” Us website.
But here’s where things get strange: Toys “R” Us doesn’t seem to actually own what it’s selling. Instead, the former toy giant has become a marketplace leasing out space to different brands where they can promote and sell their own goods. That’s not all: The Toys “R” Us website is powered through Target. Every single toy and product we clicked on at the website featured a link to buy the toy through Target. As far as we can tell, Toys “R” Us isn’t technically selling anything on its own.
There’s also the little detail in an NBC report that b8ta, the company who partnered with Tru Kids to create the new Toys “R” Us store, has installed dozens of sensors in the ceiling of the store to “monitor traffic patterns and shopper cadence” to see where kids and parents are going and what brands they’re more attracted to. That’s right: Toys “R” Us is monitoring where kids go to produce data for brands.
This all comes after Toys “R” Us closed 800 stores across the country last year, after private equity firms had saddled the company with millions in debt after a buyout. The company filed for bankruptcy and auctioned off most of its assets. About 30,000 former employees were laid off in summer 2018 without any severance or benefits—they ultimately received a $20 million severance fund after filing a lawsuit. The new store in New Jersey did hold hiring events for former Toys “R” Us employees before opening jobs to the general public.
The second Toys “R” Us is scheduled to open December 7 at the Galleria in Houston, Texas. It will also feature sensors that monitor kids’ behavior inside the store. According to NBC, the plan is to have at least 10 stores by the end of 2020, including a New York flagship store.
Clarification: b8ta CEO Vibhu Norby shared a statement to io9 about the definition of “shopper cadence” in store monitoring:
“Shopper cadence doesn’t mean cadence as in voice. It means as in rhythm/frequency, as the word is used in a business context. We in no way monitor, track, or record what people say in the stores.”
Correction 12/5/2019, 9:00 a.m.: A previous version of this article asserted the sensors were monitoring and tracking voices when in fact they are monitoring the flow of where people are in the stores at any given time to see which items they are attracted to. Our post has been updated and we regret the error.
Update 12/5/2019, 10:30 a.m.: After making our correction we asked b8ta to further clarify how the data is being collected, how long it’s stored for, and whether shoppers are notified the technology is in use in the stores. They declined to comment.
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