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TOYS 'R US: Toys with Digital Signage

The Center of the Toy Universe can be found in Times Square and it's operated by Toys 'R Us. With 110,000 square feet of various toy shopping zones, all aligned within three floors of merchandising space, the toy universe is a vast space.

By Louis Brill

Add a 60-foot Ferris wheel, a human "kid" Barbie doll house, a Candy Land shop, a computer game wonderland and an animatronic 20-foot tall, fiercely bellowing Tyrannosaurus Rex dinosaur and any children let loose within this store knows they're in toy heaven. The Toys 'R Us (TRU) Times Square store is not only the company's flagship store, but also very busy with thousands of people who move in and out of the store on a daily basis.

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  • Electronic signs directing customers
    Guiding store customers through the vast collection of toys and goodies on each floor is managed by over one hundred plus different electronic signs that present, promote and portray the store brand, the products and the presence of all the different toys and games overflowing the shelves and bins of each shopping zone. The electronic signage within the store is known as Toys 'R Us (TRUTV) and is utilized synergistically to promote the store's brand awareness, its vast inventory of product offerings, and a broadcast system for live in-store product launchings and special events. The electronic signage also presents way finding displays to help customers (basically kids of all ages) navigate their way floor-by-floor through its cornucopia of toys and toy-related events and special happenings around the toys.

    To operate and continually update the Toys 'R Us electronic displays is a background sign management system known as a 'the Conductor ™ show controller.' For Toys 'R Us, this one-of-a-kind system was developed by Show and Tell Productions, a Manhattan-based full service multimedia agency that provides creative consultations, graphic design services, custom software development and multimedia operations for many of the spectacular LED video signs in Times Square and dynamic media distribution systems for large-scale A/V installations for Fortune 500 various client companies projects.

    Way finding sign indicates direction to Jurassic Park shopping zone. First time store guests following signage are surprised when they encounter an in-store, life-size animatronic T-Rex whose ferocious bellow is worse than his (non) bite.
    photo credit: Show & Tell

    The exterior front and side walls of the Toys 'R Us retail center are covered with a mechanical window shade 'scrolling' (over 600 units collectively mounted in all windows) system that is controlled by Conductor. Altogether there are 8 different positions that the software can shift the mechanical shades into.
    photo credit: Show & Tell

    To understand the depth of organization in managing an on-site electronic sign display system of over one hundred video screens, Show & Tell's president, Phil Lenger discussed the operation and the scope of management of TRUTV's show control system and how it functions. "A show control system refers to electronically controlling controls various audio, video and mechanical devices. Generally these devices are found in Broadway shows or within theme park attractions to control the following; lighting effects, mechanical devices, audio effects and the deployment of content on video screens”, which for the purpose of this article could be electronic signs.
    An overhead LCD display welcomes visitors to the Toys 'R Us Times Square store.
    photo credit: Show & Tell

    To coordinate these theatrical effects in such a grand orchestral sweep, Show & Tell has developed their own proprietary show control system, the Conductor™, which manages all of the multimedia operations of the Times Square Toys 'R Us store including its store-wide audio system, its lighting system and all the various electronic sign messages through the store. TRU signage is a disparate collection that includes an two outdoor marquee LED video signs (manufactured by Saco Smartvision), a unique one-of-a-kind motorized widow shade, scrolling sign system comprised of 165 synchronized, window- mounted units, and inside the store, (which is the primary focus of this article) a large scale electronic display system composed of various collections of LCD, plasma and CRT displays. In a traditional retail setting that employs electronic signage, there is usually a format standardization where either LCD or plasma screens are selected and then deployed as a singular format throughout the store.
    A Toys 'R Us branding sign alerts parents to gift registry.
    photo credit: Show & Tell

    Displays as part of the show
    The Toys 'R Us Times Square flagship store is not your "normal" toy store or even a typical retail store as Lenger pointed out, "Toys 'R Us is designed to have more of a theme park atmosphere where each exhibiting area is a stand alone space to create its own unique fun atmosphere expressive of the products it sells (Barbie dolls, computer games and hardware, Legos, plush toys, etc.). Thus depending on the specific toy exhibit (or shopping zones) area, it defines the type of screens to use and how many to use. For example, some zones of the store may require several smaller LCD screens in a row, in another it may deploy just a single large plasma screen display.

    Here, the different electronic screen formats works to Toy's 'R Us's favor, noted Lenger. "By creating a mixture of display sources, it helps to create a feeling of excitement and diversity within the store and within each toy department around the store. For example, there are dedicated product displays in specific departments, there are screens that strictly show off brand imaging for Toys 'R Us as well as product promotions and third party advertising. There is also way- finding signage that appears periodically on the screens throughout the store."

    LCD displays cycle through various product announcements, here Hall of Fame signage presents Mr. Potato Head factoids as soft sell 'product alert advertising'.
    photo credit: Show & Tell

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    In creating the network architecture for TRUTV, Show & Tell designed the sign system with the greatest flexibility of control for each display. Each display system has a local digital storage and playback device and multiple IO ports. Each video display is configured with a switcher that controls what source the display should receive, which could be the overall store feed or a special themed playlist. This allows for pre-caching of content and media playback of the highest possible quality and the ability to instantly switch to the overall store feed for live or global broadcasts.

    In regard to the Conductor system's control of the Toy's 'R Us interior signage, it uses a proprietary sign scheduling system to manage the different types of sign message content traffic that is deployed throughout the store. To apply a broadcasting metaphor as to how the TRUTV sign system is organized, the store can be thought of as a 'cable television network' system which is divided into many unique channels, where each channel represents a themed area of the toy store. The channels can be thought of as dedicated programs, or in this case, a specific advertising play list which consists of branded content, way-finding, product spots and independent third party advertising.

    Depending on the specific toy exhibit area defines the type of screens to use and how many to use. For example, some zones of the store may require several smaller LCD screens in a row, in another it may deploy just a single large plasma screen display.
    photo credit: Show & Tell

    The relationship of content to screens varies depending on the themed area and how the electronic sign content is "fitted" into that area and as well its advertising commitments to that area. For example, near the elevators the screens are cycling through a content mix that includes Toys 'R Us image advertising, in-store services, toy trivia, way-finding information and 3rd party advertiser spots. In the 'Hot Wheels' area, the content mix is heavily biased toward the product. In the 'R-Zone' sometimes a themed area may have several multiple display screens within a themed area segmented by brand, designated for specific product promotion. Other screens are strategically located for multi-use to display Toys 'R Us image advertising, product-class promotions (e.g. Joysticks), in-store services, and 3rd party advertiser spots, thus each screen may show slightly different content. In another instance, certain parts of the sign's content may be choreographed to travel through a series of screens, here a message or a picture may be broken up and then migrated from screen to screen. At this point, context dominates content giving the themed area an "atmosphere" that becomes a more exciting and dynamic space.

    Warren Levy, VP of business development discussed Toy's 'R Us's typical sign content development path. "Show & Tell developed all of the creative production guidelines for the media systems in the store, and the creative comes from many sources, some of it is developed by Show & Tell, where our creative services group designs and produces all of the Toy's 'R Us content for our client. Some of Toys 'R Us media is developed by individual toy manufacturers and/or their advertising departments. We also design and produce some of the other content for the retail partners and 3rd party advertisers. The remainder is primarily pre-existing third party advertising which re-purposed for the display systems in the store."

    LED marquee alerts customers to front of store and various special events ongoing inside of store.
    photo credit: Show & Tell

    "As for planning the sign content and how and which messages go where," Levy noted, "Show & Tell works hand in hand with a liaison for the Toys 'R Us marketing department. First, we aim to support the sales and marketing goals of our client through all the electronic media in the store. We take several factors into account including brand messaging, retail promotion commitments, 3rd-party advertising, special events, in-store pedestrian traffic patterns, day-parting, holiday promotions, etc. who directs the promotions that appear on a day-to-day basis on the store's electronic signs. Toy's 'R Us produces the basic program schedule of what they'd like to see and when and where in the store they want the sign messages. We do the programming of the different schedules ourselves. Besides production, we also handle all operation and maintenance of the entire store's electronic signage."

    Putting it all together
    To supervise all the signage flow throughout the store, Conductor's system architecture includes several components. Each display has a unique IP address with a local digital storage and playback device. All the displays are connected to an in-store network and receives a unique play list and content for that location. The play list includes instructions on the sequence and frequency for each piece of content. A master scheduling engine manages over 295 devices in the store, including a sign scheduling component for managing each advertising loop play list. It does this by controlling the linear order of the sign messages into each advertising loop and then taking each of these loops and distributing the content and play list for each device to their assigned sign locations within the store. It also tracks the frequency of play with instructions on how many times an hour the loop would play.

    Cross-promoting in high traffic areas, intrigues passer-bys to find 'more like these'.
    photo credit: Show & Tell

    At any time the Conductor system may be presenting as many as fifty different simultaneous advertising loops running throughout the entire store. Deployment of sign content is managed on several levels, as some signage (such as branding) may be managed on a store wide basis and other content may be on floor-by-floor level, based on specific toy departments. Depending on a product sale or special event situation, Conductor could as easily isolate and manage one or two electronic signs with dedicated messages as it continues to simultaneously manage the rest of the store's signage needs. Schedules or play lists are based on several factors including the strategic location of each device, advertising commitments, promotional strategies and type of content. Warren Levy said “Conductor is such a flexible system it allows Toys 'R Us to easily deliver our client's messages where they want it and when they want it. This allows us to create a unique playlist for each individual screen, and/or play the same content on groups of displays in the store's various themed environments.” For example, recently when Toys 'R Us hosted the midnight launch of Halo2, every display in the store can play the same content to support the event - it does everything they need.

    Ultimately Toy's 'R Us is about merchandising and selling toys and games and its electronic signage is a unification of that process to bring excitement and involvement with the toys that much closer to the customer. In some cases the 'toy customer' is a symbiotic creature divided between the child who wants something and the parent who'll decide to buy it. At that point, the "should I buy this" dance begins in the parents mind. Hopefully, between the child's enthusiasm and the sign's persuasive content, a happy ending appears. The child has a new toy, a sale is made, and in the proper context the electronic signage has been an influence in motivating customer inspiration.

    Readers who wish to follow the entire story of Times Square can follow with these other pieces related to its history:

    One Times Square: A Global Icon Marks Time - 2003-2010, Part III
    In this third and final part of One Times Square, we examine even more of the fascinating, ever-evolving changes to this iconic landmark and how technology plays a very interesting and important role.

    One Times Square: A Global Icon Marks Time - 2003-2010, Part II
    Slowly, but surely between 2003 to 2010, one spectacular display after another on One Times Square has been upgraded with a more modern version of itself or outright replaced with a new client and a new spectacular.

    One Times Square Revisions: Signage in the crossroads of the world through the years
    If any building was to be dedicated as homage to sign displays, honors could easily point to One Times Square. It stands tall not only in height, but also throughout its 100 plus year history with its influence on iconic advertising, on sign displays, with its vinyl and electronic billboards and its timeless metaphors, all wedded to the building from top (the annual New Year's Eve ball drop) to the bottom (the news zipper wrapped around the building's base).

    Toy's R Us Interior EDS Signage
    The Center of the Toy Universe can be found in Times Square and it's operated by Toys 'R Us. With 110,000 square feet of various toy shopping zones, all aligned within three floors of merchandising space, the toy universe is a vast space.

    LED Electronic Message Reader Boards: Watching the world go by in streaming headlines
    The electronic message reader board is the town crier of the modern age. It is a simplistic, horizontal column of light bulbs or LEDs whose intermediate flashes of world watching headlines, slide effortlessly across reader board signs attached to banks and financial institutions and to the front walls of major corporate headquarters.

    King Kong Embraces Times Square with Electronic Signage Debut
    The latest remake of the King Kong epic, directed by Peter Jackson, sought out its east coast premiere in the place where the big ape met his demise, in New York City. Nothing is too good for the premiere of his latest film and only in New York City could a film of such epic proportion have an opening of similar grandeur.

    Hershey’s ­ How Sweet It Is: The Eye-Candy of Times Square
    In the middle of all its surrounding Times Square spectaculars, billboards and sign edifices, stands the flagship Hershey Times Square, a retail gift store which is a chocolate confectionary paradise that is the center of the chocolate universe.

    Minskof Theater
    The Minskoff Theatre (1,597 seats), one of the many major live performing venues along Broadway has recently undergone a signage transformation of its old blade / marquee and window display into a very modern and elegant sign package that was fit for a king: The Lion King that was.

    ABC Times Square
    It may be home to ABC's Good Morning America, but to Times Square passersby it is the building with the curvy front wall that is a gigantic television screen displaying current news and ABC TV previews all day long.

    Signs of Love: A spectacular marriage proposal on the white lights of Broadway
    This is a story of unrequited love converged with New York City's first electronic billboard, where a marriage proposal was displayed in all its glory directly above the Crossroads of the World.

    Louis M. Brill is a journalist and consultant for high-tech entertainment and media communications. He can reached at (415) 664-0694 or

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