PopCult Rudy Panucci on Pop Culture

The Dismal Return Of Toys R Us

The PopCulteer
October 11, 2019

This week we have a follow-up on what has turned into one of the most disappointing stories of the year in the toy industry. We covered the fall of Toys R Us all through the year last year, and we should be used to disappointments after last year’s “revival” turned out to be cardboard dumps full of generic toys in Kroger. But after a huge build up, this week’s news has turned out to be another football yanked away as we were about to kick it.

This week Toys R Us unveiled their new website, which was highly-anticipated as the key to re-establishing the embattled toy seller as a force to be reckoned with at retail.

That didn’t exactly happen. TruKids opened their new website Tuesday, but it’s lacking one important component for a successful e-commerce website.

You can’t buy toys from it.

Instead, the new Toys R Us website consists of images and descriptions of toys, and when you click to buy one…you are redirected to Target.com.

Target is fulfilling all the orders placed through Toys R Us. Reportedly they’re also responsible for stocking the two retail stores which are expected to open soon. Target is really excited about this, but nobody else is.

Toys R Us, which existed for the sole purpose of selling toys, is attempting to get back in the toy business without actually selling any toys. I’m sure they’ll get a teensy commission on each sale made through their website or stores, but they aren’t investing a penny into inventory, and are not absorbing any costs associated with shipping, handling or taxes.

This is a huge letdown. The whole point of seeing Toys R Us return was that they’d have a different set of toy buyers and stock different inventory than other retailers. That is not the case. With this set-up, they’re just lending their name to Target in a pointless execise of branding that doesn’t help toy makers or consumers one bit.

I don’t mean to knock Target. They have a perfectly fine toy department. In fact, I go to their website and stores all the time.

So I don’t really need for Toys R Us to be a clone that only offers a small assortment of what Target has for sale.

This will not change the retail landscape for toys at all. It does not open up any opportunity for new toymakers, and it doesn’t offer consumers any additional options or choices. With no independent toy buyers picking new toys for Toys R Us, we have less diversity and less choice in the marketplace.

I have to wonder if this was the plan all along, or if it’s only a stopgap measure, or “Plan B” that came about after the idea of actually financing a retail start-up became too daunting. If this was the plan all along, why didn’t they just sell the trademarks to Target in the first place?

Essentially the end result would be the same. With the Kay Bee Toys revival apparently also a non-starter, this means that the toy retail world will be dominated even more by Walmart, Amazon and Target, with other retailers scrambling for the remaining twenty to thirty percent of the market not contolled by those three.

I don’t see consumers flocking to the new Toys R Us website. When people go to a website they want to buy stuff. They don’t want to be redirected to another company’s website, where the item they want might not be in stock.

The folks in charge now at the new corprate parent, TruKids, seem to have a fundamental misunderstanding of what made Toys R Us so appealing in the first place. Nobody went to Toys R Us for the “experience.” They went there to buy toys. Toys R Us was a toy-seller.

TruKids is also teaming up with Candytopia to create “Pop Up Experiences,” starting in Chicago and Atlanta. Dubbed “The Toys R Us Adventure,” the experiential pop-ups feature more than a dozen interactive play rooms, larger-than-life toys, and installations featuring Geoffrey, the brand’s giraffe mascot. However, you won’t be able to buy any toys there. It’s basically a fancy version of one of those bouncy-house places you see in malls.

“The Toys R Us brand was built upon celebrating the joys of childhood and we are thrilled to partner with the creatives behind Candytopia to introduce an exciting new way to play for guests of all ages,” Tru Kids CEO Richard Barry said in a press release.

Eliminating selling toys from the company mission reminds me of the community theater director a few decades back who said of his production of Jesus Christ Superstar that, “We’re going to play down the religious aspects of it.”

The folks in charge have completely missed the point of what Toys R Us should be. It should be a giant, sterile warehouse, filled with any toy any kid could possibly want. It was never part of the “Toys R Us Experience” to have well-informed sales associates who helped you with your purchase. You were lucky if they could tell you what aisle you could search to find the toy you wanted.

That was the fun…actually shopping, seeing things you didn’t know about and experiencing the joy of finally finding what you wanted. The whole idea that you could get lost and wander around the store looking for what you wanted was the real “experience.” It was the adventure of shopping. Most people know exactly what they want when they go to a toy store. That wasn’t a major issue that brought about the downfall of Toys R Us.

The two retail stores that TRU plans to open (concept sketch at left) will just be tiny showrooms, maybe with space for a hundred or so toys, and “demonstrators” who will tell you how great those toys are, because they’re being paid by the toy makers to convince you to order the toy from Target. Of course, this arrangment, where the toy companies pay for the space and pay for the sales associates and Target handles everything else only works if the idea is to keep the Toys R Us brand alive without spending a penny of their own money on it.

My prediction is that consumers will soundly reject this concept, and the TRU trademarks will be quietly sold to someone else (with Target being the front-runner) after the Christmas sales are calculated early next year.

It’s really sad to see things turn out this way. I was hoping for a stellar return to greatness for Toys R Us this holiday season. This news is like opening that big box under the tree, only to find socks and underwear.

That’s this week’s PopCulteer. Check back for all our regular features.

The Underwhelming Return Of Toys R Us

The PopCulteer
August 2, 2019

This story broke a couple of weeks ago when your PopCulteer was enjoying a brief visit to Chicago, but the real reason I haven’t addressed it here is that it’s sort of sad.

TRU Kids, the company spearheading the revival of the legendary toy retailer, Toys R Us, announced that they will be returning to retail in time for Christmas this year with a grand total of TWO WHOLE STORES…one in Texas and one in New Jersey.

This is not exactly the sort of revival that folks were hoping for.

A little history for those who came in late: Back in 2017, Toys R Us, which was in debt to the tune of over ten billion dollars (with a “B”), needed to borrow even more money in order to survive through the holiday season.

The only way they could get the necessary loan to keep operating through Christmas was to put up their intellectual property as collateral. Some of the financial institutions issuing this loan were the same entities that had loaned them money previously, but this was a seperate transaction, secured by the store’s name, trademarks and website addresses that belonged to the company.

The 2017 Christmas season was a bit of a disaster and the company could not borrow any more money to stay afloat, so in 2018 they had to liquidate (which I covered extensively in PopCult at the time). However, when it came time to sell off all the assets, that liquidation did not include the name of the company and all the related IP. Those were already foreclosed upon by the lenders in the final loan transaction.

It was announced that all the intellectual property would be auctioned off late in the summer of 2018. That never happened. Eventually it was revealed that the folks who had foreclosed on the name and trademarks decided that there was more value in them reviving the company (now that it was out from under that insane debt load) than there would be in selling the name to someone else.

A new company called Tru Kids formed, headed by Richard Berry, one of the former CEOs of TRU (from back when they were making money), and they were hired to manage the intellectual property and get the revival off the ground. Last year for the holiday season, just to keep the brand visible before they formally established Tru Kids, the IP owners sold some of their private-label toys in Kroger, as “Geoffrey’s Toy Box.”

When they started meeting with toy companies about buying inventory for their proposed stores and website, I started hearing from my industry contacts that they were going to try to do this on the cheap. They actually went to toy companies with the proposal that they sell their products on consignment, rather than actually buying it upfront to sell themselves.

This is not a foreign concept to American retailers, but it’s one that rarely works. A year or two ago Target went to the major record labels and told them that they would no longer buy their product outright, but would sell it on consignment. That’s why you don’t find CDs in Target any more.

This type of arrangment shifts all the risk to the manufacturers and allows the retailer to spend their money on other costs of doing business. Since the cost of inventory is the number one business expense for retailers, this would be a pretty sweet deal if you could talk anybody into falling for it.

Now, in the case of Tru Kids, they were going to members of an industry that had just suffered a dismal financial year due to the liquidation of Toys R Us. Toy Manufacturers lost tens of millions of dollars in the bankruptcy, and then had to compete in the marketplace against their own liquidated product that they hadn’t been paid for due to TRU shutting down.

I can only imagine how Tru Kids was received when they pitched the idea of not paying for any product upfront from companies that just lost tons of money thanks to the failure of Toys R Us.

Originally there was talk of Tru Kids opening as many as 200 Toys R Us stores nationwide in time for Christmas, 2019. I’m guessing that the reality of the costs of doing business must have hit them in the face for them to have scaled that down to two stores. That the stores aren’t exactly in the biggest markets is even more puzzling. New Jersey is close enough to New York to be considered a good move, but why they would pick Texas over Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Chicago or Orlando is beyond me.

The new Toys “R” Us stores will be open before the holiday shopping season later this year at The Galleria in Houston and in Westfield Garden State Plaza in Paramus, New Jersey. My guess is that they will probably have about the same amount of inventory as a Go! Calendars and Toy store (like the one in the Huntington Mall). Below you can see the concept image of what they expect the stores to look like. Pretty disappointing, if you asked me.

It’s pretty evident to me that Tru Kids is under-capitalized. That’s never a good way to start a business. While the financial institutions who own the TRU Intellectual Properties were not willing to part with it for what had been offered, they also seem unwilling to invest much more into building a new retail chain. Now they say they plan to open eight more stores in 2020.

In the press releases, the folks in charge have said that the new Toys R Us stores will not be warehouses full of toys, but will instead focus on providing “experiences” and play value. Tru Kids described them as a “highly engaging retail experience designed for kids, families and to better fit within today’s retail environment.” The plan is to lease out space to the toy companies so they can set up their own displays. Tru Kids has partnered with the bright, shiny retail concept company B8ta to create a store concept that’s more like an Apple Store than a big box retailer.

That tells me that they don’t understand the Toys R Us concept at all. If you really want to pinpoint the moment when Toys R Us started their decline–one that included multiple bankruptcies and a leveraged buyout that eventually doomed the company–you have to look at 1994, the year the chain’s founder retired, and new management decided that they were carrying too much product. They put into place a plan that would remodel the stores, and drastically reduce the amount of different products they offered from over 100,000 to about 40,000.

That is when Toys R Us began to suck. Sales plummetted and the downward spiral began. Up until then TRU sold almost every toy that was offered on the market. If you wanted a toy you knew that you could find it at Toys R Us. After the change, that was no longer true.

I have no idea what kind of beancounter voodoo was used to conclude that slashing your offerings by 60% would make sales go up, but it must be powerful stuff to get management to go along with such a counterintuitive concept. That was 25 years ago, before the rise of Amazon, and the face of retail has changed dramatically in that time. I am of the opinion that, had Toys R Us stayed true to their original concept of carrying almost every toy on the market, they would still be a thriving retail powerhouse today. They weren’t beaten, they surrendered.

In order to recreate the original Toys R Us magic a huge capital outlay would be needed. Hundreds of millions of dollars would have to be spent on real estate and construction, and tens of millions on inventory. It doesn’t seem like the lenders who foreclosed on the Toys R Us name are willing to invest that kind of money. This seems more like a “stop the bleeding” move, designed to keep the name alive in the hopes that another company (Please, God, not another private equity firm) will come along and buy up the name and IP…and pay at least enough for it for them to recoup what they loaned Toys R Us in 2017.

That might happen. Tru Kids and B8ta might survive long enough to open more stores in key markets next year. It will never be the same, though. I don’t think anybody in a position of power has any faith in mass market retail as a viable concept any longer. It still hasn’t occurred to the folks competing with Amazon that the reason Amazon does so well is that they offer so much product…just like the big box stores used to.

You have to excuse me if I’m a bit skeptical of this new retail plan. Maybe it’s because I’m an old, out-of-touch white guy, but the more I read about the store concept created by B8ta, the more I imagine a store manager, with a man-bun, named “Clem Fandango,” who has no idea how to process a return, and only knows the toys offered in the new stores…if that. The days of a person working in retail because they really love what they sell are long gone. The B8ta concept is all about surveillance and metrics and algorithms and providing “experiences.” Somehow that’s supposed to work better than “Oh, you don’t like that toy? Here choose from thousands of other toys.”

Meanwhile, the attempted revival of KB Toys has run into a major snag: Strategic Marks, the folks who snapped up the trademarks when they expired, can’t find any financial backing or willing partners to open any stores. Hell, it’s not like they’re going to spend their own money on the idea. Last year’s plan to open pop-up stores never materialized. Two of their potential partners, Go Calendars and Party City, opened their own pop up toy stores without KB, and while the folks at Strategic Marks have also talked about opening a couple hundred stores in time for this year’s holiday season, they admit that it won’t happen without additional investors.

My prediction is that Amazon will expand their toy offerings even more, and simply replace the in-person toy store experience. They seem to be the only retailer of any kind that understands the simple notion that, if you offer more products, you sell more products.

That’s this week’s PopCulteer. Check back for our regular features.

The PopCulteer
January 25, 2019

It’s been a bit of a strange week here in Charleston. Macy’s announced that they were closing their store, an anchor store in the Charleston Town Center. That same Charleston Town Center was auctioned off on the steps of the Kanawha County Courthouse, and essentially failed to sell, being bought back by the bank holding it in receivership for what was probably their minimum acceptable bid.

On top of that, there are rumblings that the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department plans to open a Suboxone Treatment Clinic in a location that is more than a little controversial. And out at the Southridge Shopping Complex, something weird is happening at the old Toys R Us building.

So things are definitely “interesting.”

The Macy’s move was not a major shock. The chain has been closing stores for some time, trying to get to a manageable size so they can stay in business. Their criteria, hinted at in the statements the company released, indicated that they thought they could get more money out of selling the building than they could by continuing to operate a store there.

That indicated to me that, perhaps, they have already been contacted by a developer. My wild speculation is that a developer could buy Macy’s and the vacant Sears building that anchor the West end of the mall (seen left), and build a hotel, which would be right across the street from the newly-renovated Charleston Coliseum & Convention Center. It’s a primo spot, and a deep-pocketed developer could justify picking it as a location for a six-or-seven story hotel, with a grand entrance on Quarrier Street with a drop-off area and handicapped parking, a huge lobby where Sears is now, and escalators and elevators to the admissions desk, which would be where the second floor of the mall is now.

The stores on that end would be relocated. The Chop House and Panera would stay where they are, open to the public, but also on the grounds as hotel support. The former Macy’s would host the hotel’s swimming pool, laundry service and conference rooms and hotel restaurant. You’d still be able to walk from the mall to the Convention Center.

Both the Sears and Macy’s buildings would be demolished, with new structures replacing them. That end of the mall would have to be extensively remodeled and reinforced, and then the hotel rooms would go above that entire West end of the mall. And it would be right across the street from the new Charleston Coliseum & Convention Center (seen right).

The new hotel would have access to the Town Center’s parking buildings, and its mere presence would serve to attract more upscale retailers to what is in danger of becoming a “ghost mall.”

I realize that’s quite a bit of a pipe dream. Such a developer would have to buy both Sears and Macy’s and probably the entire mall, and then invest at least a couple of hundred million more on construction. And that’s a conservative estimate.

In my wild dreams for this project, I’d see the hotel being a combination Hilton Garden Inn and Homewood Suites. Hilton is exploring this combination option, and they’re doing it in locations near convention centers.

However, getting a developer to invest in building a massive and expensive hotel in a town where the company that owns two hotels near the Clay Center just declared bankrutptcy, might be a bit too wishful. But if you’re going to dream, dream big.

Can We Afford NIMBY?

An unexpected development that’s popped up is the potential Suboxone Treatment Clinic at the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, which would be in the shadow of my dream hotel complex.

This one is a conundrum. This area has a terrific need for drug treatment clinics. We’ve been hit really hard with the opioid epidemic. We need all the treatment centers we can get, and the problem is grave enough that we may be past the point of playing NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard).

There is a good argument to be made that the urban setting may not be the best for the patients. The proposed clinic would just be a brisk walk from the Transit Mall, which at times can be a bit like a shopping mall for hard drugs. These issues need to be studied and debated, and in the meantime maybe we need to fund and build additional clinics elsewhere in the county. One clinic that treats up to 12 people is only a drop in the bucket.

I Don’t Wann Grow Up

Meanwhile out at Southridge, the old Toys R Us building still sits empty since the entire chain went under last June.

Or does it?

A couple of weeks ago, when your PopCulteer and his wife drove by the building on the way to food, we noticed that all the lights were on, and the building was filled with what looked like unassembled fixtures. It had been dark since the whole chain shut down last summer, but notably, this building still has all of it’s Toys R Us and Babies R Us signs intact. Stores that we’d seen in some other cities had all the signage removed.

It is likely that those are just fixtures that didn’t sell when the store closed last year. I wasn’t in there right after they closed, and with the lights off you couldn’t see them. This could very well be a case where somebody had to go in there for some reason and just left the lights on.

Calls to the owner of the property have not been returned, and if anything is actually happening there, I doubt that anybody could say anything about it anyway. This isn’t exactly the sort of information that anyone wants to blab to reporters before they’re ready.

So since I’m already in “wild speculation” mode today. How about I just put this out here?

I will not be surprised if, either right before, or during, the International Toy Fair in New York City, which is coming up in a couple of weeks, Toys R Us announces that they will be reopening as many as 200 stores in their old locations, with the stores to be open sometime later this year, before Christmas.

This is ENTIRELY SPECULATION. I have no proof, no inside information, nothing more than a hunch based on what I saw at the former Charleston TRU store. And, hell yes, it is indeed wishful thinking. With severence packages finally being paid to their former employees in January, the deck may be cleared for Geoffry and Toys R Us to return.

Normally I would not run an item in PopCult with such flimsy supporting evidence, but it’s properly labelled as speculation. I just hope I’m right.

UPDATE: As I write this, the New York Post adds fuel to my speculatory fire. They report that a new firm representing TRU is reaching out to toy manufacturers to place orders at Toy Fair.

My timeline for an announcement might be off, and the lights being on in Charleston may have nothing to do with it, but it looks like Toys R Us will return this year.

The AIR Radio Notes.

Over on our sister interent radio station, The AIR, we have two new shows Friday afternoon. I told you about them yesterday, but now we have playlists. You can hear these at The AIR website, or on this embedded player…

Friday at 1 PM, Radio Free Charleston International features yours truly playing obscure music that he loves. Check out the playlist:

Barnes and Barnes “Gumby Jaws Lament”
Tubeway Army “That’s Too Bad”
Skankin’ Pickle “My Hair”
Nina Hagen Band “Superboy”
Midnight Satellites “Long Lost”
Nicky Hopkins “Shout It Out”
Mi Sex “It Only Hurts When I’m Laughing”
Roger Glover “Dreams of Sir Bedivere”
Spazzchow “Cats”
MIKA “Love You When I’m Drunk”
The Parlortones “Skeletons”
Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra “Storm Rider”
Ugly Blondes “Bottom of the Ocean”
Tiki Tonga “Island Paradise”
The Soulutions “Do Right”
Nu Tra “Superhuman”
Black Dyke Mills Band “Thingumybob”
Small Affairs “Back To China”
Silent Treatment “Life On Earth”
Busty and The Bass “PS, I’m Pregnant”
Macy Gray “Nothing Else Matters”
Polysics “Black Out Fall Out”
Spacehog “Candyman”
Super Furry Animals “Don’t Be A Fool, Billy”
The Dollyrots “The Addiction”
The Woggles “Morituri Te Salutant”
Tracy Bonhom “Your Night Is Wide Open”
Fitz and The Trantrums “Fool”

Then at 3 PM, on Sydney’s Big Electric Cat, and ailing Sydney presents two hours of New Wave Dance Mixes with limited interruptions. Here’s her playlist:

Ultravox “We Came To Dance”
FGTH “Two Tribes”
Toyah “Brave New World”
The Stranglers “Let Me Down Easy”
The Human League “Don’t You Want Me”
The Clash “The Magnificent Seven”
Kid Creole & The Coconuts “Stool Pigeon”
Heaven 17 “Crushed By The Wheels of Industry”
Freur “Belladonna”
The Boomtown Rats “Up All Night”
Erasure, “River Deep, Mountain High”
Lene Lovich “New Toy”
Echo and The Bunnymen “Broke My Neck”
Depeche Mode “Everything Counts”
Cyndi Lauper “Change of Heart”
Baltimora “Tarzan Boy”
Adam Ant “Goody Two Shoes”
DEVO “Peek A Boo”

And that is it for this week’s PopCulteer. Be sure to check back for all our regular features and fresh content every day.

The End of Toys R Us…For Now

As of Friday, Toys R Us is dead…for now.

The 70-year-old retail chain is the latest victim in the long-running Private Equity scam wherein investors in name only buy a company with borrowed money, transfer the debt to the company they bought, drain it of all its worth, and then let the remnants be liquidated in bankruptcy court.

This will not be the last time this happens. Soon the Bon Ton retail empire, which locally includes Elder-Beerman, will follow suit, for exactly the same reasons.

But Toys R Us, as we know it, will cease to be this week. Many stores have already closed, while a few will fizzle out before the weekend.

By next year, a new company will own the name and will begin opening new stores, hopefully with competent management and no plans to sell out to Wall Street vultures.

Bloomberg reports that Jerry Storch, the former CEO of Toys R Us, who was fired in 2013 for making the company too profitable for Bain Capital and their co-conspirators to pull off their “Producers” style ponzi scheme, has been working with several investors on a plan to relaunch the retailer in the U.S, assuming they can purchase the intellectural property rights out at the bankruptcy auction at the end of July.

Storch is the man to lead the revival. Under his leadership TRU grossed nearly a billion dollars a year. Unfortunately the company was saddled with so much debt that even at that level they could not dig their way out. I wrote about the horrid business practice of leveraged buyouts that brought down Toys R Us last year.

With a clean slate and real capital behind him, Storch could very easily bring Toys R Us back as a stronger retailer than it had ever been before. That is, if he and his investors can win the auction.

It’s entirely possible that Walmart or Target could buy the name, just to slap on their toy department so that nobody else could use it. There are also murmers that other big box retailers may pursue the name so that they could rebrand parts of their stores into Toys R Us locations. At this point nobody knows what the bidding process will entail.

It’s also possible that MGA Entertainment’s Isaac Larian, who tried to salvage some of the existing stores in a failed bid, might be involved in some way.

One thing that is probable is that, if a Toys R Us revival does happen, it’s not likely to be in the same locations. The real estate is being sold off in a separate auction, and it’s unlikely that investors can come up with enough money to buy both the intellectual property and the physical locations. Doing so would saddle the company with too much debt to get off to a good start.

We may see a revived TRU launch in malls, much like the old KB Toys business model, because there is so much available retail space in our failing former meccas of retail. We could also see Toys R Us open in former Bon Ton locations, like Elder Beerman, which would be novel, considering that the same liquidation firm is handling both of their going out of business sales. At this point it’s all speculation.

Regardless of what happens, it’s pretty likely that the Toys R Us name will live on in some way, shape or form. I would imagine it’s even possible that there may be some use of the name before this Christmas season, if only online.

The one thing that we do know for sure is that other competitors are already starting to spring up. Party City announced earlier this week that they will be leasing 50 former Toys R Us locations this year as “Halloween City” (which we have seen in Teays Valley and Parkersburg in the past) and that instead of closing on November 1, those stores will convert to “Toy City” and remain open through the holiday season. I’m hoping that they decide to do this with all of their Halloween City locations, since fifty stores is really not that big a deal. I’ve also heard rumblings that Spirit Halloween stores may follow suit.

We also know that KB Toys plans to open hundreds of pop-up locations in malls all over the country, with the door being left open so that the best-performing of those stores could potentially remain in operation year-round. Strategic Marks, who successfully revived Hydrox and other brands in the past, has wisely partnered with mall operators for this project. FAO Schwarz is also poised for a return on a smaller scale, with a hunt underway for a new Times Square location and several smaller stores planned for airport malls.

The issue with pop-up stores is that they lack the buying power of major retailers and will either have higher prices or a different selection of merchandise as a result. I actually like the idea of having retailers cozying up with smaller toymakers as it could make things much more interesting in the long run. That’s the silver lining in this cloud. With so many new players in the toy retailing game, there are much more opportunities for small toymakers to get their feet in more doors. We already have Walgreens as a major player with exclusive action figures from Hasbro’s Marvel Legends and McFarlane Toys Walking Dead lines.  It could get to be fun for collectors making toy runs again.

In addition to pop up stores and such, Walmart and Target are expanding their toy sections starting in August, and Walgreens is aggressively expanding their already-growing toy department in time for Christmas. Other retailers: Kohl’s, Best Buy, Barnes & Noble, Books A Million, Cabelas/Bass Pro Shops and TJ Maxx are also ramping up their toy offerings this year. Even Kroger is rumored to be getting in on the act.

So while there’s some sadness for the end of an era, I’m guessing that the toy industry will have record sales this year as toys are available in more retail outlets than they’ve been in for decades. I also expect Toys R Us to be back in 2019. In essence, I don’t come to bury Toys R Us, but to praise it. This chapter has a sad ending, but the story is not over.

The photos accompanying this post were all taken in the last week at various Toys R Us locations in Chattanooga, Barboursville and Charleston.

Toys R Us: The First Rescue Bid Goes Down In Flames

Yesterday afternoon the news broke that Isaac Larian’s bid to buy 215 of the remaining US Toys R Us stores, along with the Canadian arm had been rejected. This was not a shock. His bid was almost embarrassingly low, at under 900 million dollars for both countries’ stores combined, and there was no way the court was going to take such a bid seriously. Larian (right) says that he’s disappointed, but didn’t give any solid hints to his next move.

His bid was so low that “unnamed sources” leaked its rejection to the Wall Street Journal before he’d even been formally notified. What is not clear is whether or not there are any other bids that would keep any of the stores in the US open. Lairan’s bid for 215 US stores was $675 million dollars, which is probably half of the minimum amount it would have had to have been to be taken seriously.

Larian had to have known this. My guess is that he went ahead with his bid in the hopes of bringing other bidders out of the closet that he could possibly team up with them and come up with an offer that might be considered by the trustees. At this moment, building a coalition of investors might be the best hope to keep TRU alive in the US.

While Toys R Us went bankrupt due to the overwhelming debt it was saddled with after a questionable leveraged buyout, it is not a worthless company. The name has value. The website has value. There are large real estate holdings worth a fortune. The reason nobody stepped in to buy them before they were forced into bankruptcy was that debt, estimated at five-to-twelve billion dollars, depending on the source. Aside from the debt, the company is probably worth four to six billion dollars, worldwide.

The Asian Toys R Us operations, of which TRU owns 85%, have reportedly drawn multiple bids of over a billion dollars.

It remains to be seen if there are enough interested parties looking to acquire any of the US stores to see any stores in the chain rescued. If there are, they’ll need to have way more money on hand than Larian had. Otherwise his best effort might be dropping his bid for the US stores, and tripling his bid for the Canadian arm of the company.

This story is likely to develop rapidly over the next few days. By this weekend, the liquidation sales should move into the next phase, with deeper discounts, but that could be pushed back if the court sees a ray of hope that some may stay open. Some stores are now telling customers that they might remain open into July.

The Latest On Toys R Us and KB Toys


UPDATED: Today was the day that the Toys R Us liquidation sales were to begin at most locations. I don’t mean to beat a dead horse with this story, but Toys R Us is a huge pop culture icon, and their demise is a pretty big, still-developing story. In a breaking development, many stores have posted signs saying that the liquidation sale has been postponed. We don’t know what this means. Reports are surfacing that they could begin at all locations by Friday, but even that isn’t certain.

Apparently this delay is due the fact that some interested parties want to purchase as many as 400 stores and keep them in operation. Most states have laws on the books that force a business to file a “going out of business” plan, and stick to it. This way consumers are protected from unscrupulous retailers who try to run perpetual going out of business sales simply as an advertising tease. In this case, since some TRU stores may remain open, they have to weigh all their options before starting such a sale.

When the sales do begin I wouldn’t expect any steals in the first week of the liquidation. All the toys will be marked up to their full retail price (or beyond) and initial discounts may only be enough to bring them down to what they were yesterday. In a couple of weeks, when the advertised discounts hit 30% or more, you’ll start to see real bargains.

There are still several bidders that want to rescue part of the chain. Isaac Larian, the CEO of MGA Toys (Bratz, LOL Surprise) is trying to buy the Canadian arm of the business along with as many as 400 of the US stores. That amount seems to be a best-case scenario, but it’s possible that, if his bid is successful, some stores might just halt their liquidation sales in April and attempt to get back to normal operations. That appears to be the hold-up in starting the liquidation sales, and the fact that the sales didn’t start on time is an indication that the court is at least taking these offers seriously.

The other major player that is known in this game is Strategic Marks Inc., who have been getting tons of press since they announced that they have “acquired” the trademarks to KB Toys. I’m still using quotes there because there are so many conflicting reports about how they picked up the trademarks, and there’s a lot of suspicion that their claims of ownership are shaky, or at least shaky enough to draw the scrutiny of the bankruptcy court.

However, it seems they can prove that they legitimately own the KB Toys name since they’ve already announced how they will bring the stores back in time for the holiday shopping season. They plan to partner with a seasonal retailer like Spirit Halloween or one of the many other stores who “pop up” for a couple of months (Party City and Spencers have divisions that handle this sort of temporary store) and open as many as a thousand KB Toy Stores in time for Christmas.

While this sounds exciting to folks who are nostalgic for KB Toys, the reality is that these stores will have higher prices and less selection, and will only share their name with the former national toy chain, which went defunct in 2009. There are conflicting reports about whether or not Toys R Us, who purchased the KayBee Toys intellectual property out of liquidation, really did allow the trademark to slip into the public domain. If they did, then somebody at the company screwed up big time, which at this point would be par for the course. The URLs for the trademark names have expired and no longer point to the Toys R Us website.

Assuming that, since Strategic Marks is a very successful company, their plan is on the level, I hope they put more effort into their pop-up stores than the typical seasonal retailer does. We’ll have to take a wait-and-see approach with this, but it’s looking a lot like we’ll have temporary stores in our local malls in time for the holidays. At least we can be sure that they’ll have plenty of spaces available for them at the Charleston Town Center.

Speaking of Charleston, while it is indeed very sad to Toys R Us go, in the likely event that the Charleston store is not one of the top performers that might be saved, we have to be honest here. Charlestonians over the age of 35 were never “Toys R Us Kids.” We didn’t get our local store until about 22 years ago, and the Barboursville store only opened in the mid-1980s after Children’s Palace shut down at the Huntington Mall.

We had KayBee Stores since the early 1980s, with two locations in the Charleston Town Center, and one in the Kanawha Mall. Those stores and Kid Country Toys made up most of our local toy-shopping world post 1980.

Back to where we stand: many Toys R Us stores could begin liquidation sales this week or next. Should the court accept any of the bids to buy some of the US stores out of banktupcy, it’s not clear how those stores would proceed. They may have to go ahead and liquidate, then close so they can restock those stores and then reopen a week or four later, of they may not be allowed to liquidate at all. KB Toys is preparing to open up to a thousand pop-up stores in time for Christmas, but it remains to be seen how well-stocked those stores will be, since the period for ordering holiday toys is nearly over.

That’s the current update. As the bidding process moves through bankruptcy court, it’s probably going to be mid-April before we have any idea if any of the plans to save any Toys R Us stores will succeed.

This story has been revised more than half a dozen times since it was originally posted early on March 22. Any further updates will be made in additional posts.

tru_front-copy-1-845x684The PopCulteer
March 16, 2018

You may have noticed that PopCult has been largely devoted to toys for the last few weeks. We had the International Toy Fair in New York last month, and this month we’ve been bringing you lots of pre- and post-ToyLanta coverage (with more to come). However, we have to take a moment to talk about the biggest story in the world of the toy industry this week, the not-unexpected impending demise of Toys R Us.

Last year I wrote about the real cause of TRU’s woes. It was not a downturn in sales or competition from Walmart on Amazon. Toys R Us was the victim of a perfecly legal, yet lethal, financial transaction, a leveraged buyout.

In 2005, Bain Capital, a firm that had already systematically destroyed KayBee Toys in exactly the same way, teamed up with two other private equity firms to buy TRU and take it private, and in the process they saddled the company with a debt load that could only be paid off if sales went up and all their competition went out of business.

The surprising part of what happened was that Toys R Us was so big that it took them thirteen years to run the company into the ground, with somewhere between five and eight Billion dollars in debt (reports vary). That’s “Billion” with a “B.” Outside of military contractors, it’s hard to run up a loss that huge.

The most important lesson that should be taken away from this is that, perhaps, the government should consider whether or not the practice of leveraged buyouts should even be legal. I realize that the prevailing philosophy among those currently in power is that all government regulations are bad, but that philosophy is evil and self-serving.  We need banking reform and new regulations on Wall Street, and we need to consider banning such predatory financial manuevers as short-selling, derivative trading and leveraged buyouts.

post-1-0-70873000-1449894013A leveraged buyout, in too many cases, is just the act of a money vampire. Private equity firms borrow money to buy a healthy (or in the case of TRU, a still-viable, but damaged) company and then transfer the debt from that purchase to the company, meaning that they don’t really put out much of their own money, and instantly plunge the company that they just bought into debt. Then they install their own board of directors and high-priced consultants, all of whom get paid before anyone else, and drain as much money as possible out of the company, while not investing any more capital to keep that company competitive.

In the case of Toys R Us, the company had been adrift without competent management since the death of its founder in 1994.  The management team that came in after him had no understanding of the toy industry or the original concept of the stores, and hobbled the competitive edge that TRU previously had over everyone else in the field.

The whole reason that TRU was so phenomenally successful was that they were the place to go that carried almost every toy made.  That was the attraction. It was costly managing that much inventory, but it was really the only thing that made them different from other toy retailers. In the mid-1990s the new CEO made the decision to drop more than half of the products they carried, and that put a serious dent in their appeal. That was when they started losing market share rapidly to Walmart, Target and KayBee Toys. If KayBee hadn’t been snatched up and destroyed by Bain Capital, they would’ve passed TRU as the top dedicated toy retailer by the year 2000.

So Toys R Us was already in trouble when Bain Capital lazily raised their head from the carcass of KayBee Toys and decided to just go ahead and kill another toy retailer.

And that brings us to where we are now. There is still a tiny glimmer of hope that some of the Toys R Us stores will remain open. I stumbled across a plan late last year that I had to agree to keep quiet about. A group of investors, lead by a toy company executive, approached TRU with a plan to buy their Canadian divsion along with 200 of their top-performing stores and also the Intellectual Property of KayBee Toys. Toys R Us bought the KayBee trademarks and website out of liquidation and still owns them.

The plan would be to rebrand the US stores as KayBee Toys and operate them out from under the unmanageable debt load that was pretty much obviously going to sink the company.  I was asked to keep my mouth shut about this plan, which was easy to do.  Chances are that it wouldn’t happen. TRU could not continue without their top 200 stores. But there were contingency plans to buy the same assets out of liquidation.

mga-logo2-centeredI can talk about this now, because these investors have gone public. The Washington Post reports, “A group of toymakers led by Isaac Larian, chief executive of MGA Entertainment, the giant behind brands such as L.O.L. Surprise!, Little Tikes and Bratz, on Wednesday submitted a bid to buy Toys R Us’s Canadian arm, which includes 82 stores, according to Larian. He added that he is also looking into buying as many as 400 U.S. stores, which he would seek to operate under the Toys R Us name.”

When I accidentally found out about this, even a hint of the plan coming out would jeopardize it. It’s still iffy. They have to get their financing in order and the bankruptcy judge has to determine that their offer will bring in more money than a total liquidation of those particular assets. Right now I’d give this plan less than a fifty percent chance of happening, but I really hope it does.

No “white knight” was going to take on the company’s debt load. Very few people have eight billion dollars laying around, and those that do are more likely to spend that money buying elections than they are to rescue a failing retailer. But a consortium of toy companies would be the best bet for TRU to find a management team that will take them back to their original philosopy of being THE toy store, and would be more intent on making the company work.

The Private Equity firms involved aren’t losing any of their own money on this deal, and they’ve already made tens of millions of dollars in management and consulting fees. To them, even with TRU going into liquidation, this was a profitable deal.

105068177-toysrus_closings_map-600x400Unless things change rapidly, I wouldn’t expect a ruling from the judge before next week. Toys R Us has announced that they will honor gift cards and rewards points for the next thirty days (probably 28 by the time you read this), and the start date for the liquidation sales has not yet been announced. To your left you see a map of all the remaining TRU stores in the US (courtesy of CNBC).

If a specialized liquidation team is brought in to sell off the inventory, don’t expect any bargains during the first week or two. As anyone who’s been to the St. Albans K Mart can tell you, the first thing they do when they liquidate a store is mark up all the prices to ten or twenty percent more than the suggested list price. Then they discount it from there. In many cases that means that the day before a liquidation sale you can find stuff for less than you will the day after it starts.

It’s not until they get further along that the real bargains will pop up. If you wait until they advertise “50% Off,” you might find some decent discounts from their inflated starting prices.

It’s sad to see Toys R Us come to this, and I really hope that some of the stores can be salvaged, but to those of us who watched what Bain Capital did to KayBee Toys, this was inevitable when they took over TRU back in 2005.

ToyLanta Swag

Just so that this PopCulteer is not a total bummer, I know that you really want to see some more ToyLanta photos, so in this post I’m going to show off what I bought, and tell you a little about the dealers. We’ll kick it all off with this year’s convention exclusive figure, available with the Commander’s Packages, it’s the Descend Into Danger set, featuring work by Cotswold Collectibles, Felipe Monaco and the talented ToyLanta crew.


Bryan Tatum has been creating cool mini-diorama pieces to go along with the convention figures for the past few years, and this year he came up with a really cool radioactive alien scene, complete with a working strobe light…



Continue reading…

What Really Happened to Toys R US

The PopCult Toybox

f8a20505ee1831d4c607f00fc9be458fRecently, Toys R Us, the last remaining nationwide retail chain dedicated to selling toys, declared Chapter 11 Bankruptcy. This means that they will be able to remain in business while they renogiate their debt and reorganize in an effort to correct their course and become financially stable in the long run. There is a chance that it will be determined that such a thing is not possible, and that they may eventually go into liquidation, but for now it’s business as usual for the House of Geoffry.

Lots of articles in the mainstream press and on toy collecting sites have popped up pointing their fingers at the “changing face of the toy business” and chalking the downward spiral of Toys R Us up to changing play habits and online games and the encroachment of online retailers on their core business.

tru_front-copy-1-845x684While these are cogent observations, and these conditions are somewhat to blame for the current state of the toy business as a whole, they completely miss the point of what really happened to Toys R Us. Toys R Us fell victim to a perfectly legal business practice that sounds to the average citizen like something extremely unethical and immoral.

I want to stress that even though I may use the words “scam” or “scheme,” I am not in any way accusing anyone of doing anything that is not 100% legal. I personally feel that these business practices should not be legal, but as I write this, the actions I am about to describe to you are not criminal, and are, in fact, routine financial transactions that occur every day.

On July 21, 2005, a consortium of Bain Capital Partners LLC, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts (KKR) and Vornado Realty Trust invested $1.3 billion to complete a $6.6 billion leveraged buyout of Toys R Us. At that point, the company was publicly-traded but was coming off several bad years following a series of terribly unwise business decisions, such as slashing the number of different products they carried from over 100,000 to less than 40,000, and expensively remodeling their stores to try and cover up the fact that they no longer carried 60% of the product that they had previously. The firms took Toys R Us private, but continue to make their financial records public, indicating that, at least at one point, the plan was to get the company healthy, then take it public again.

debt_loadaNow, in this case, the leveraged buyout meant that the three investor firms borrowed most of the money to buy Toys R Us, then transferred that debt to the company. Toys R Us acquired billions of dollars of debt overnight. They are now over five billion dollars in debt, and the bankruptcy will enable them to borrow two billion dollars more, just to get through the upcoming holiday season. They have been losing hundreds of millions of dollars a year for some time, but most of that loss comes from the staggering amount of debt service that they have to pay. It would be nearly impossible for them to sell enough toys to make the scheduled payments on their gigantic debt load. Last year Toys R Us borrowed two and a half billion dollars for the specific purpose of paying off 2.4 billion dollars of debt from the year before. That’s about half of their long-term debt. That’s like refinancing your house every year while your wages are going down.

Being hamstrung by this huge debt load meant that, for many years, Toys R Us was not able to purchase the most popular toys during the Christmas season (where they make most of their sales) at a low enough wholesale price to compete with Walmart, Target and Amazon.

Continue reading…

Vlad and Niki Surprise Us With Toys

The PopCult Toybox

As my readers know, I cover pop culture here in PopCult, and I focus a lot on nostalgia for the pop culture from my childhood. But what about the pop culture of today and tomorrow? What will today’s kids be looking at fondly when they’re my age?

My guess is that they’ll be looking back at Vlad and Niki, two boys from Dubai who have one of the most successful YouTube channels in the world. The boys, (aged 8 and 6) began making unboxing videos in 2018, and have become internet superstars just by having fun. Their parents run 21 YouTube channels in 18 languagues, and their main channel has over 65 million subscribers. These kids are huge stars with today’s kids, with the #1 YouTube channel for boys, and the #2 channel for families.

The energetic videos center on the boys’ daily life adventures, which are brought to life with special effects and animation, superhero narrative, toy testing, and catchy songs. Last year, Vlad and Niki introduced Christian – the boys’ new baby brother, who is delighting in his older brother’s antics. Their mother even gets into the act in some videos.

Now, in partnership with Zuru Toys, Vlad and Niki are getting in the blind box toy business, and they’re doing it in a big way. Vlad & Niki Superhero Surprise provides a complete unboxing experience, allowing kids to bring the included comic book & the story to life! Each super-sized surprise egg features over 20 surprises including mask and cape, Super Hero Vlad and Niki figurines, Baby Christian figurine, a dinosaur or robot figurine, two die-cast car, slime egg, light up skateboard, wrist snap-band, stickers, tattoo and much more.

Vlad & Niki Superhero Surprise is packaged in a giant egg (with ears) and will be available exclusively at Target beginning June 21. You can check out Vlad and Niki’s super-fun and bizarre video of them playing with the Superhero Surprise here…

Next week your PopCulteer will get into the act with his own unboxing video of Zuru’s Vlad & Niki Superhero Surprise. You’l get to see my real-time reaction to seeing these cool toys in person for the first time. I should warn you that superheroes, dinosaurs, robots and toy cars are pretty much in my wheelhouse, so I’m really looking forward to this and may not be completely objective.

I won’t be flying around or chasing dinosaurs or anything though…not at my age.

Special note: PopCult may disappear from this location at The Charleston Gazette-Mail soon. Don’t miss out on our new posts at our NEW HOME. Bookmark the new site, and subscribe to our RSS feed. You can also follow PopCult and Rudy Panucci on social media at Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

The PopCulteer
March 23, 2018

Quite A Week

It’s time for this week’s PopCulteer, and since I haven’t done it for a while, this one’s going to be a stream-of-consciousness, multi-topic ramble.

Your PopCulteer has been under the weather for a few weeks now. Right before I left for my annual trek to Senoia, Georgia and then on to ToyLanta, I realized that my Myasthenia Gravis was flaring up for the first time since I’d been diagnosed and began treatment. I still have a ridiculously mild case, and for that I am eternally grateful, but I had a few days where my hands did not want to work as well as they have been, and a more severe side effect was my double vision worsening.

Still, this all really minor compared to people I know who struggle with severe Myasthenia Gravis, and I have to admit that I haven’t been more vocal about having this disease because I don’t feel like it’s hit me hard enough for me to complain about it.

However, being down a bit from the MG and venturing into a land where the Pear Trees decided to bloom early and fill the air with pollen meant that by the time we returned from the South (where we managed to have a wonderful time despite the various challenges), I was primed for any kind of seasonal allergic/sinus affliction, and have basically been coughing my head off for the past two weeks.

If you’ve been wondering why my shows on The AIR are still in reruns, that’s why. I have no voice at the moment.

Anyway, I do appear to be on the mend. I’m really hoping to get this cough tamed so that I can make it out to see Wolf’s Head: A Tale of Robin Hood and The Sheriff this weekend. I really want to see this show, but I also don’t relish the idea of disrupting a performance with my barking pumpkin impression.

In the meantime, I am still able to write, and there’s plenty of stuff going on at the moment.

The Toys R Us Mess

Compounding the sadness and confusion of yesterday, I had to re-write this post eight times in three hours as new information came to light, Charles Lazarus (right), the 94-year-old founder of Toys R Us, passed away. It was sad, and touching, and totally unrelated in any way to the fate of the company he founded 70 years ago. He cashed out and retired in 1994, and had nothing to do with the current management of the company.

As I write this (early Friday morning) the Toys R Us liquidation sales are supposed to start today. That may change, but it appears that the hold up may not have been the potential rescue of some of the stores, as I theorized yesterday, but instead may be related to the bankruptcy filing on Wednesday of the Toys R Us real estate arm, which carries nearly $900 million in debt, and which will likely be combined with the Toys R Us bankruptcy and cause a shuffling of prioritized creditors.

Since the court is not exactly making all such decisions public yet, this is all supposition.

Isaac Larian, the founder of MGA who is trying to raise enough money to save approximately half of the US stores from going under, has turned to crowdfunding in an attempt to raise an additional $800 million, in addition to the $200 million of his own money that he’s put up.

Call me cynical, but this has all the earmarks of a publicity stunt that isn’t really expected to succeed. I can’t see somebody financing a billion-dollar business takeover via GoFundMe.

Meanwhile it’s looking like the pending revival of the KB Toys brand might turn out to just be a case of slapping the KB Toys name on one of those seasonal stores that sells calendars, games and toys, like we’ve had in the Charleston Town Center for the last few years at Christmas time.

While this isn’t as exciting or exotic as return to the KayBee Toys of the past, it’s at least a viable proposition, if underwhelming in the grand scheme of things.

What Happened to Stuff To Do

I’ve had a few (very few) readers notice that I am not cranking out a weekly run down of everything happening in Charleston any longer. It’s true. I’ve pushed “Stuff To Do” into semi-retirement. It had reached a point of diminishing returns.

I realized a couple of years ago that, while many people have tried to create comprehensive arts calendars and entertainment guides for Charleston as a response to complaints that there’s nothing to do in town, or at least any way to find out about it, the harsh reality is that there aren’t enough people who care what’s going on to make such an endeavor worth the effort.

Back in the early days of The AIR, I hosted a weekly audio show with my wife, Mel Larch, called “Stuff To Do,” named after the regular column here in PopCult. After ten weeks of putting a lot of work into the show so that we could have a fresh episode not only on The AIR, but also available for download on Wednesday mornings, we discovered that nobody was listening–not to the station when it aired, and not a single download. And that show took about twenty hours of research, writing and recording each week.

Likewise, I was spending a tremendous amount of time each week compiling Stuff To Do for PopCult.
Several hours would go into looking up schedules and searching Facebook for events to which I had not yet been invited, and in many cases creating graphics for concerts–and hardly anybody read those posts.

Of late I have found that I attract more readers by focussing on a single event than I do by attempting to tell everybody about every single thing happening in Charleston. So I’ve become more selective about what I plug here in the blog.

For instance, in the last two weeks I’ve written posts about two local events, Wolf’s Head: A Tale of Robin Hood and The Sheriff, and the Cabernet and Clay sculpting event at Rad FX Atelier. Those posts have been read hundreds of times. To contrast that, the last time I did a comprehensive “Stuff To Do” post, it was read twelve times. That post took over five hours to compile.

To contrast it even further, when I write about toys, comics, movies or music, many thousands of people read those posts.

So I’ve made the decision that, to get more bang for my buck, in terms of where I focus my energies, I can do more good for the local scene by plugging one or two events per week, instead of trying to be all things to all people. The readers have spoken with their eyes, and there doesn’t seem to be any interest in me writing an aggregate guide to weekend events.

Facebook Follies

There has been much ado about Facebook’s data breach this week, and it’s resulted in a lot of folks deciding to give up using the service, or to at least take a day to protest it.

This is all rather silly. From day one I knew what Facebook was–a massive data-mining operation, and I decided to use it and to protect myself as much as possible, since there are many benefits to using the service.

I have never volunteered my information to Facebook. I’ve never completely filled out my profile or given them my phone number. I’m sure they have all this information already by aggregating it with my personal profiles with other businesses, but I’ve never confirmed it with them.

I’ve also never used Facebook to sign into another service, and I’ve never taken a quiz that requires you to sign in to Facebook, or done any of those silly, innocuous things that require you to allow them access to your Facebook account. All of that is done so that they can create a profile of you that can be sold to other companies to target advertising to you, or as we saw last year, to influence your political views.

I also never allow myself to be tagged in a location. While I was on vacation Facebook somehow determined where I was using my laptop on the way down and tagged me automatically, and I had to manually remove all those tags.

I’m not shocked or surprised that the data has been misappropriated and used for evil purposes. That’s really the only logical endgame of such an enterprise that trades in YOUR preferences and personal details. The fact is, Facebook is Big Brother, and anyone who uses the service is working for the surveillance team.

Speaking of Personal Data

Yesterday afternoon I had some free time, was filled to the brim with cold medicine, and got aggravated by junk mail. Specifically, I was aggravated by junk mail from AARP.

AARP started sending me junk mail before I turned 40. It’s elaborate junk mail, sometimes with fake membership cards printed on thick plastic, usually with no visible signs on the outside of the envelope, so that you don’t just toss it straight into the trash, and it’s also voluminous. I usually get three to six pieces of junk mail from AARP each week. This is paid for by the membership fees of people who haved joined AARP thinking that they would actually do some good with their money.

It was yesterday, after being tricked once again into opening an envelope with no return address and a huge warning “CARDS ENCLOSED: DO NOT BEND,” that I remembered back to over a year ago when I called to complain and was told that I would be removed from their mailing list, but that it would take up to three months for the mailings to stop.

Let me interject here that there is no valid reason for this type of delay, and the people who came up with this policy are forcing their telephone representatives to lie to people every day about it.

Of course, since I was then expecting the junk mail to continue for three months, I didn’t really notice that it hadn’t stopped until more than a year had passed. So I dug out my email exchanges from last year and called again.

Keep in mind that I have NEVER been a customer of AARP.

When I called I got the same run-around about how it would take three months for the junk mail to stop. I pressed further, and the nice young lady informed me that she was surprised that I was still getting junk mail because on my profile, all the boxes were marked to “suppress” all contact.

She then read her script to me to tell me that the junk mail must be coming from third parties.

After explaining that there was nothing on the mail to indicate that it was from a third party–that it included their return address and urged me to send them money for a membership and a free backpack or something, it hit me.

Insert the sound of a record scratching here.

“My profile?” What profile? I’m not, nor have I ever been a member, customer or whatever of AARP. I started asking her questions about it. They have a profile on me? How can I get them to delete it? Would she delete it for me right now? She even put me on hold to ask her supervisor if such a thing were possible. Apparently it isn’t.

I even got a bit of shocked laughter from her when I asked if she could just mark me “deceased,” but then I remembered that my parents both got mail from AARP for years after they’d passed away.

In case you didn’t know, AARP keeps profiles on everyone they consider to be a potential member. Keep in mind that this is a political lobbying organization, and what they’re doing is at least as nefarious as what Cambridge Analytica did with the stolen Facebook data.

If you call AARP and ask them to delete your profile, they will refuse. Nobody you can reach on the phone even has the ability to respect your marketing preference.

All you can do is blog about it.

And that is this week’s PopCulteer. Check back for our regular features, cover your mouths when you cough or sneeze and remember to stay hydrated.