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The sudden and very public failures of apparently unstoppable businesses

A Thomas Cook Logo

The business world can be tough, and even some of the best global businesses that have survived for decades are not invincible.

Businesses that once seemed to be on top of the world have had huge fraud scandals occur, are plagued by recession, or have failed to keep up.


Toys R Us

This was the toy store that nobody wanted to say goodbye to.

Toys R Us had a legacy lasting nearly seven decades by the time it filed for bankruptcy in September 2017.

The first store opened in Washington DC in 1948.

Toys R Us profited from the baby boom and economic prosperity that came after the war years.

It went on to be seen as the most important toy store in the world.

To begin with, e-commerce helped the business as Toys R Us teamed up with Amazon in 2000 as its exclusive toy retailer for a 10-year period.

However, Amazon allowed other toy companies to sell through its site before the end of the contract.

Leading Toys R Us to end the partnership.

The company sued Amazon but didn't fully recover.

With a combination of greedy investors and poorly managed finances, the chain was forced to go bankrupt in September 2017.

Thomas Cook

Thomas Cook launched his holiday tour operator in 1841.

He took roughly 500 temperance campaigners from Leicester to Loughborough to a teetotal rally by train.

The company eventually grew into an international package holiday provider.

European tours started in 1855 and trips to America were launched in 1866.

Thomas Cook offered the first-ever escorted world tour in 1872.

Then by 1888, it had offices around the world.

The family sold the company in 1926, and it passed through many different people.

Under the name Thomas Cook Group, it even branched into its own airlines in 2003.

However, in 2018 the company was advised to split the business to boost the failing finances.

So, in early 2019 it closed 21 of its travel agent stores, with the company blaming an increase in online bookings.

In the first half of 2019, it reported over $1.5 billion in losses.

Then, after talks to sell most of the business to existing shareholder Chinese company Fosun Tourism fell through, Thomas Cook Group collapsed in September 2022.

This left 150,000 British travelers stranded in various countries across the world, with the Civil Aviation Authority having to step in to pay to bring them home. 


This was a family-run business based in Michigan for 40 years and was once one of the country’s biggest booksellers.

The first store was opened in Ann Arbor in 1971 by brothers Tom and Louis Borders.

Within the year, the franchise grew to 21 bookstore locations.

Thinking that they were onto something big, the Borders brothers sold the chain to Kmart in 1992 for about $125 million.

Under Kmart's control, it continued to grow Borders' empire during the 1990s, combining it with another of its book brands, Waldenbooks.

Unfortunately, the popularity of bookstores dropped.

This was because the popularity of Amazon, e-readers, and online shopping grew.

In 2011, the original store in Ann Arbor closed and the company declared itself background. 


Blockbuster was an American-based home movie and video game rental business.

It operated through video rental stores and then moved into online DVD-by-mail and streaming services.

However, the company got caught up in internal feuds when the CEO, who was keen to promote subscription-based rental and streaming, was fired and the services were scaled back.

As we know from the success of streaming services such as Netflix, that was a huge mistake.

Hit hard by the collapse of the Lehman Brothers bank in 2008, Blockbuster was left $350 million in debt and filed for bankruptcy in the US in 2010.

The movie rental chain isn't completely dead as one store is still open in Bend, Oregon, which has managed to stay alive thanks to a combination of loyal customers and visitors.


Woolworths was a mass-market retailer founded in 1879.

It established many retail standards which are still used today.

In the US, Woolworths 'five-and-dime store' model grew as the company quickly got more land and expanded.

However, this eventually bring its undoing, as in the first quarter of 1997 the chain suffered operating losses of $24 million, compared to a loss of $37 million for the whole of 1996.

It wasn't able to turn around so, Woolworths announced in July 1997 it would close more than 400 five-and-dime stores in the US, with 9,200 jobs lost and a $223 million charge for discontinued operations.

In 2001, the original parent company changed its name to Foot Locker, which is now the largest athletic shoe company in the world with more than 3,000 stores.

Despite being sold off, the UK arm of Woolworth's empire also finally went under in 2009.

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