Charles Lazarus, 1923–2018
The retail pioneer who built a toy empire
When Charles Lazarus returned from World War II, his Army buddies all told him the same thing: They were going to get married and have kids. Spotting an opportunity, he opened a child-focused furniture store in Washington, D.C., selling cribs, strollers, and toys. Lazarus soon noticed that while parents would buy one high chair or playpen for their growing families, they kept coming back to buy new toys for each child, who quickly tired of the old ones. So in 1957, Lazarus opened his first toys-only store in Rockville, Md., calling it Toys R Us—with the “R” flipped backward the way a child might write it. The playful presentation belied a cutthroat business strategy. Helping pioneer the big-box store model, Toys R Us came to dominate toy sales, muscling out smaller competitors with its steep discounts and massive inventory. “You have to have imagination,” Lazarus said of his success in the toy business. “You have to think like a child.”
Born in Washington, Lazarus worked from an early age at his father’s bicycle repair shop, said The Washington Post. After serving in World War II as an Army cryptographer, Lazarus started selling children’s furniture at his father’s store and “soon took over the space entirely, turning the storefront into a shop named Children’s Bargain Town.” With Toys R Us, Lazarus “transformed the toy business from Christmas-focused to year-round,” said Bloomberg.com. Emulating the success of self-service grocery supermarkets, each store featured long aisles and shopping carts, with a massive yet predictable selection. Toys R Us became the world’s largest toy chain, with some 1,600 stores, and in 1987 Lazarus was ranked the highest-paid executive in America, earning more than $60 million that year alone.
Lazarus’ company “endeared itself to generations of children, with a lovable mascot in Geoffrey the Giraffe and a hummable jingle—‘I don’t want to grow up, I’m a Toys R Us kid,’” said The New York Times. He stepped down as CEO in 1994 and Toys R Us was eventually outflanked by even nimbler competitors like Amazon and Walmart. The company declared bankruptcy in September, and a week before Lazarus’ death announced it would shutter all its U.S. stores. But Lazarus had always considered the toy business a fickle trade. “Nobody makes you buy a toy,” Lazarus once said. “Although over the years, I have taught children to say ‘I need,’ rather than ‘I want’ it.”