Big box stores are dying. What do we do with all the bodies?


My memory of Toys ‘R’ Us now consists mostly of big empty boxes. While I don’t remember many of the toys I got at Christmas as a child, the image of clumps of wrapping paper and piles of discarded cardboard is forever imprinted in my brain.

Now, Toys ‘R’ Us is leaving us with much bigger empty boxes—but these won’t be as easy to throw away. On March 15, the company announced that, without a Hail Mary influx of cash, the beloved chain will be closing, leaving its 800-odd American storefronts vacant.

The beginning of the big box stores

Founded in 1948 by Charles Lazarus, Toys ‘R’ Us was the model of a post-war business. Most notably, it transformed the children’s toy industry from a seasonal market to an everyday luxury. By its peak in the mid-1990s, Toys ‘R’ Us had cemented its reputation as a “category killer”—a brand so dominant in a single market it snuffed out all competition. But much of Toys ‘R’ Us’s success hinged on its retail space: the big box store. Unfortunately, its downfall may have been brought on by the very same thing.

For millennials and younger generations, big box stores have always existed as part of the country’s landscape, but at one time they were a radical invention. Instead of keeping most of the inventory sealed off in storage, big box stores put the wares—all of them—on display.

It’s difficult to pinpoint the origins of this architectural style, but experts point to 1962 as a watershed year, with the first Walmart, Target, and Kmart stores opening up within a few months of each other. To fully promote their wares, these companies required voluminous and largely undivided retail space, with high ceilings that allowed stock clerks to stack seemingly endless supplies. Outside, they needed big parking lots to fit all their customers, and easy access to highways, to keep car-centric shoppers close.

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