Toys 'R' Us founder dies amid chain's U.S. collapse

Charles P. Lazarus, the World War II veteran who founded Toys "R" Us six decades ago and transformed it into an iconic piece of Americana, died Thursday at age 94, a week after the chain announced it was going out of business in the U.S.

Charles P. Lazarus opened his 1st store selling only toys in 1957

In this Jan. 7, 1992, file photo, U.S. President George H. Bush, left, listens to Toys 'R' Us Chairman Charles Lazarus as he visits the toy chain's second store to open in Japan. Lazarus, the World War II veteran who founded Toy 'R' Us, has died at age 94. ( Associated Press)

Charles P. Lazarus, the World War II veteran who founded Toys "R" Us six decades ago and transformed it into an iconic piece of Americana, died Thursday at age 94, a week after the chain announced it was going out of business in the U.S.

Toys "R" Us confirmed Lazarus' death in a statement.

"There have been many sad moments for Toys R Us in recent weeks, and none more heartbreaking than today's news about the passing of our beloved founder, Charles Lazarus," the company said. "Our thoughts and prayers are with Charles' family and loved ones."

Lazarus, who stepped down as CEO of Toys "R" Us in 1994, transformed the toy industry with a business model that became one of the first retail category killers — big stores that are so devoted to one thing, and have such an impressive selection, that they drive smaller competitors out of business.

More recently, Toys "R" Us found itself unable to survive the trends of the digital age, namely competition from the likes of Amazon, discounters like Walmart and mobile games. No longer able to bear the weight of its heavy debt load, the company announced last week that it would close or sell its 735 stores across the country, including its Babies "R" Us stores.

The fate of the Canadian stores is not yet clear, as some bidders have expressed interest in the business north of the border.

But for decades, it was Toys "R" Us that drove trends in child's play, becoming a launchpad for what became some of the industry's hottest toys.

Lazarus modelled his business after the self-service supermarkets that were becoming popular in the 1950s, stacking merchandise high to give shoppers the feeling it had an infinite number of toys. The stores created a magical feeling for children roaming aisles filled with Barbies, bikes and other toys laid out in front of them.

The chain has its roots in Children's Bargain Town, the baby furniture store that Lazarus opened in his hometown of Washington, D.C., after returning from the Second World War. He began selling toys after a couple of years when customers began asking for them, and he quickly concluded that, in the baby-boom years, toys were a more lucrative business than furniture.

A sign for a Toys 'R' Us store is seen at a shopping cart return kiosk, on Jan. 24, 2018, in Paramus, N.J. Toys 'R' Us, squeezed by Amazon.com and huge chains like Walmart, will close 180 stores, including the Paramus location, within months. (Julio Cortez/Associated Press)

He opened his first store dedicated to selling only toys in 1957, calling it Toys "R" Us with the "R" spelled backward to give the impression that a child wrote it. Shopping carts stood ready for customers to grab and fill up themselves, supermarket-style.

In 1965, Geoffrey the giraffe became the company's mascot, appearing in his first TV commercial in 1973. By the 1980s and early 90s, Toys "R" Us dominated the toy-store business and its jingle, "I'm a Toys R Us kid" became an anthem for children across the country.

Lazarus, who was born on Oct. 4, 1923, was inducted into the Toy Industry Association's Hall of Fame in 1990.