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Toys "R" Us targets prime Tampa Bay-area market for new look, revamped stores

Promising economic indicators means Tampa is a target for expansion by struggling big-box store Toys “R” Us.
Promising economic indicators means Tampa is a target for expansion by struggling big-box store Toys “R” Us.
Published Nov. 22, 2016

BRANDON — Toys "R" Us has revamped three Tampa Bay-area stores with a slew of new gadgets and a fresh look as it works to stay afloat in a cutthroat toy and retail industry this holiday season.

There are magic mirrors where people can stand in front of a large screen while cartoon characters copy their movements through 3-D camera technology. There's a new toy lab and a movie headquarters, where clips from popular movies like Trolls and Star Wars play on flat screen TVs near corresponding action figures and toys.

The stores also added an American Girl section, as have more than 90 other Toys "R" Us locations around the country. The Brandon store is one of five U.S. locations testing out an in-store Build-A-Bear Workshop.

"Tampa is getting very, very special treatment here," said Richard Barry, executive vice president and global chief merchandising officer for New Jersey-based Toys "R" Us. "We're looking to say, 'How do we completely revitalize the market?' "

The stores are more open and inviting, he said, with larger front windows and lower displays that allow customers to see through the entire store and quickly spot the brands they're shopping for.

"One of our core strategies is that it is not only going to look nice but it is going to be engaging in a way we've ever done before," Barry said.

He said the area's population growth, economic conditions and employment rate were factors in the company's decision to invest here. The company is even considering adding another new store within the city limits of Tampa.

Like many other big box retailers, Toys "R" Us has been grappling with large store footprints and overhead costs that make it difficult to compete with online retailers like Amazon.com. Early this year, the company shuttered its famous flagship store in New York City's Times Square.

Barry said the challenge is in finding a balance between fitting into smaller spaces while still maintaining those experiential details, like having life-sized toys that shoppers want to take photos in front of. In some cases, the company has cut down on the square footage of its own space and rented the rest of the building to noncompetitive tenants.

"We want there to be a greater convenience," he said. "Our core strategy whether the store is 25,000, 45,000 or 100,000 square feet is that we have to offer them awesome brand experiences."

It's those interactive and fun details that encourage customers to visit the store rather than click a mouse for new toys and products online, he said.

"There's this notion of bringing the store to life. You're going to be excited and want to be in that store a long time."

Contact Alli Knothe at aknothe@tampabay.com. Follow @KnotheA.