Toys ‘R’ Us tests virtual games to stave off real struggle to survive

Toys “R” Us is fighting competition from online retailers by trying to make its stores more inviting by encouraging children to interact with the merchandise on cellphones and tablets.

Using the “augmented reality” technology made popular by the Pokemon Go craze that began last year, the company wants to send kids armed with mobile devices chasing clues throughout the stores to collect stars, which lead to more virtual adventures.

The program began a test roll-out this week in 23 stores, including three in the Triangle, ahead of an Oct. 21 nationwide launch.

The company’s Play Chaser application allows children to play games and watch visuals at 13 hotspots around the stores grouped with similar toys. Today’s toys don’t just sit there taking up shelf space; they jump out at passing customers and onto their screens in an attempt to put real products in children’s hands.

“Imagine that,” Thomas Blair said on Friday morning while shopping in the North Raleigh store with his wife, Sarah, and soon-to-be 4-year-old son Michael. The Franklin County couple have three children; the others are 9 and 6.

The younger ones don’t have cellphones – that’s not to say they wouldn’t try to con us into using it.

Sarah Blair

Play Chaser relies on the complicity of parents like the Blairs, who will likely have to provide the electronics to play it.

“The younger ones don’t have cellphones,” Sarah Blair said. “That’s not to say they wouldn’t try to con us into using it.”

Amazon has dominated the toy industry as it has most of online retail. Toys “R” Us has struggled even though, with some 1,600 stores, it is one of the biggest toy chains in the country. Last month it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection so it can restructure its debts.

The company’s CEO, Dave Brandon, told USA Today the AR games will give customers more reasons to go to brick-and-mortar stores rather than shop online.

“We are super excited about it,” company spokesman Joseph Contrino told The News & Observer.

Social 101

None of the adult shoppers interviewed in the Raleigh store Friday had noticed the game, even though they had to pass through an entrance way exhorting them to download the app so they could virtually meet Geoffrey the Giraffe, the company’s mascot.

If it makes noise and is social media it will attract kids.

Tonya Mitchell

“I saw the blinking light on the shelf and thought it was security,” said Jillian Lemmon of Raleigh, a mother of three. “But it looks interesting, for sure.”

With all the stimuli of a Toys “R” Us store – from talking easels to squealing dolls – it’s easy for adults to overlook Play Chaser, which is played several feet below at kid level.

At one stop players can view an African scene with lions and elephants roaming through the grasslands next to boxes of Animal Planet toys. Scan a stuffed puppy’s bar code and he’ll respond, “Take me home!”

Bam! When you reach the next stop you’re told you have unlocked a new game: FastLane cars with giant wheels can be driven through an obstacle course. Rows of boxed race cars share the shelves.

New game: You & Me features three racially diverse dolls that jabber in baby talk and can be virtually taken home to be fed and have their diapers changed. There is also a basketball hoop. Some of the games keep leaderboard scores for in-store bragging rights.

Tonya Mitchell, a middle-school counselor from Raleigh, hadn’t noticed the games when she came into the store either, but said the idea makes sense.

“If it makes noise and is social media it will attract kids,” she said. “Even cellphones. Anything that’s social 101, yes.”

North Carolina stores where Play Chaser is being tested

▪ 7810 Poyner Pond Circle, Raleigh

▪ 3330 Westgate Drive, Durham

201 Crossroad Blvd., Cary

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