The Toys R Us store, shown here Thursday, has been located on Whittlesey Boulevard at Columbus Park Crossing since the shopping center’s opening in 2002. It moved there at the time from Macon Road. The Wall Street Journal and other national media are reporting that Wayne, N.J.-based Toys R Us is on the brink of closing all of its stores and liquidating them. -- Photo by Tony Adams


With Toys R Us on brink of closure, here’s what could fill that and other empty retail spaces in Columbus


March 11, 2018 07:30 PM

Updated March 12, 2018 09:15 AM

If the Toys R Us store in Columbus is notified this week — as national media outlets have reported likely will be the case — that it will be closing as part of the 70-year-old bankrupt chain’s decision to liquidate itself into the retail history books, Columbus-area residents should not take it personal.

That’s because it’s simply another cold business decision in the lifespan of a company that was born, once thrived and then found itself bankrupt and thrust into the throes of financial death.

After all, that scenario has played out time and again through the years — a large U.S. chain that may have performed well locally becomes a national victim and leaves yet another retail crater in a shopping center. And most restaurant operators also can empathize with the same fatalistic possibility.

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If everything plays out as the media reports have indicated, the Toys R Us store at 5555 Whittlesey Blvd. at Columbus Park Crossing on the city’s north side would join Sears and hhgregg. Those two, once a short walk from the Toys R Us storefront at the shopping center, are the most recent failures in the Columbus market that came after their parent companies became cash poor and, in this day and age, proved they could not respond quickly enough to an internet tsunami that has turned the brick-and-mortar retail world in general upside down.

“It’s representative of just the changing way that the American consumer buys products,” said Jack Hayes, a commercial real-estate broker with KW Commercial in Columbus, pointing out how that the idea of heading out to a shopping center or mall for a big spending spree to buy lots of things at one time has become somewhat old fashioned in this technology-laden environment.

“With the advent of Amazon and their business model, even I and my family, we buy shoes, we buy children’s clothing, we buy day-to-day products, everything from paper towels to vitamins and supplements, and we do all of that with a point and a click,” he said. “It’s just so much easier with a busy, active lifestyle for someone to do that as opposed to the way we used to shop.”

Others that have lost their way through the years — even when the word Amazon was best known as a rainforest and river and not an entity raining down packages at your doorstep — include Service Merchandise, a general merchandise retailer that did well in Columbus but got caught up in a corporate bankruptcy and disappeared. A relatively new Publix supermarket now does business in its former space at Cross Country Plaza on Macon Road.

Department store Montgomery Ward preceded Macy’s at Peachtree Mall before its own liquidation, while Circuit City peddled electronics and gadgets at three locations in Columbus — the final one at Columbus Park Crossing — then hit the skids into retail oblivion, leaving Best Buy the major player in that category.

Kmart, Radio Shack, OfficeMax, Parisian, Rich’s and Gayfer’s all have had local presences through the years but were shuttered due to corporate downsizing or after being gobbled up by competitors. Even Toys R Us itself made the leap from Macon Road to Columbus Park Crossing in 2002 to remain a viable merchant in the market.

“They always say what is new will become old, and what is old will become new,” said Hayes, relating how Sears, Roebuck and Company used thick paper catalogs decades ago to attract customers and land orders from them, with goods being mailed to their homes and businesses. Home Depot and Lowe’s home improvement stores also have flourished, he said, but now are feeling some pressure from smaller hardware stores that are more convenient and may offer better personal service.

The real-estate broker, who also is redeveloping Gentian Corners shopping center on Milgen Road, believes neighborhood centers such as that should fare much better than “big-box” operators, because they offer more personal services such as nail and hair salons, dry cleaning and sandwich shops that can’t be bought and delivered online.

“You hear of Amazon opening a large fulfillment center there in Macon, and these are nothing more than just huge warehouses. So a company like Amazon can buy large quantities of widgets or whatever it may be and sell it at a very competitive price and deliver it to your door. And all of a sudden that’s terrible news for even a behemoth like Walmart,” said Haynes, noting Walmart is pouring money into on-time delivery and e-commerce to catch up with its Internet rival.

“It’s just a changing of the times,” he said.

The major question for Columbus and any other community which has lost a large Sears department store or could see Toys R Us, the one-time playtime goods palace, go completely bust in the coming days: Where do you go from here with the relentless internet playing no favorites and showing no compassion for brick-and-mortar stragglers?

“I think anytime our local market is affected by a national tenant, it’s an opportunity to rethink what’s appropriate for today on this property and going forward,” said Reynolds Bickerstaff, a broker and co-founder of Bickerstaff Parham Real Estate in Columbus. “Sometimes you might remove half of the space to create a park or an outdoor dining area. You just have to rethink what’s appropriate now and what is going to attract customers to this site, and who do they want to do business with.”

Bickerstaff said he talked with his commercial agents a few days ago about the local retail sector and how Columbus Park Crossing has changed since its launch in 2002. No conversation on the subject can escape the mention of Jeff Bezos-owned Amazon, which was founded in 1994 and has grown its revenues and overall scope to that of a proverbial 800-pound gorilla.

“Amazon basically wants to be able to almost open your door and drop your packages off in your house, which sounds crazy,” said the real-estate executive, who envisions a proliferation of private mail centers, or post offices, which accept and hold e-commerce packages for citizens who don’t want them delivered to their doors only to have them pilfered before they get home at the end of the day.

When it comes to the empty Sears and hhgregg buildings or the possible vacant Toys R Us space, Bickerstaff becomes even more creative. He can see climate-controlled indoor storage space in one of the structures or a church possibly. There also would be ample room in any of the buildings for an event center, albeit in an unusual retail environment surrounding it. The space would offer a “blank canvas,” he said, that could be turned into a gathering facility at a relative low cost.

It’s that type of thinking out of the big-box mentality that likely will be required in Columbus and elsewhere amid an online commerce age that has become a major disrupting force for anyone selling goods from a physical storefront.

“They still have so much traffic in that area,” Bickerstaff said of Columbus Park Crossing. “I think if I owned that property, I would be looking at other non-retail uses for that space that would keep a customer in that area longer ... I could go to put things in my storage unit, and then I could go to a movie or to get something to eat. We all don’t want to drive around town and go to different locations if we can consolidate things into one area.”

Hayes also sees a future for Columbus Park Crossing and other shopping centers which doesn’t fit the typical mold of what many people grew up with over the last half century. He believes the empty buildings will be back-filled with tenants, but not necessarily with the larger retailers that shoppers are accustomed to seeing. He sees lower-end, discount-oriented chains possibly stepping in.

The commercial broker points to the move of Hobby Lobby from Airport Thruway several years ago to its current location at Columbus Park Crossing. Burlington (Coat Factory) then filled its former spot on Airport Thruway.

“We had been through a recession, so what do they do? They take advantage of low pricing and move to Columbus park Crossing. So they upgraded,” he said. “But I don’t think you’re going to see any Super Targets. You’re not going to see any (more) super Walmarts. They just can’t compete the way they used to.”