Build It, and Too Many Might Come

If you’re going for “experience,” you’d better make it a memorable one – but memorable in a good way
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Posted August 7, 2018

Build-A-Bear Workshop Inc. (Overland, Mo.) was doing “experiential retail” long before anyone put those two words together.

The do-it-yourself stuffed animal purveyor, which has swept through the world of toy retail since 1997, has a simple concept. It allows customers – preferably children – to design, assemble and create their own ursine plush from a selection of facial features, wardrobes and stuffing.

In their success, they’ve even expanded into sports arena-located “Make-Your-Own-Mascots.”

What kid doesn’t want the hands-on opportunity? At home, that bear on the shelf always has an “I Made That!” memory. There are constantly new kids coming along. And after a while, the original Build-A-Bear customers are grown up, married and bringing their own children in for the same experience.

I say all this because, as traditional retailers have scuffled for ideas on how to make their concepts memorable, Build-A-Bear has already gotten there.

That’s why this is so puzzling.

In July, Build-A-Bear launched a nationwide promotion called “Pay Your Age.” Everyone’s trying for the next big idea. This concept was that customers could pay a price equal to their ages for any furry friend. The minimum price was $1, and adults could pay the age of their children who were with them in the store. The prices capped at $29.

What could be more appealing for three generation of consumers? Not this!

All over the country, Build-A-Bear stores were inundated and had to turn shoppers away. (Too much demand is not always a good thing for retailers. Angry and disappointed is not how you like to see your shoppers leave the store.)

Customers in the front of the line emerged thrilled with their purchases. Customers in the back went home (probably less-thrilled) with a $15-off coupon.

Lines began forming before 8 a.m. By late morning, Build-A-Bear had posted on its Facebook page: “Per local authorities, we cannot accept additional guests at our locations due to crowds and safety concerns. We have closed lines in our U.S. and Canada stores.”

At a mall here in Kentucky, there were an estimated 3000 in line. The average wait for those who succeeded in getting a stuffed toy was reportedly four to five hours. At its peak, the line reached all the way to a JCPenney store at the opposite end of the mall. (Penney must have been wondering which mall neighbor had this terrific idea. Fear not, Penney. For once, someone else fumbled the ball.)

Build-A-Bear subsequently remarked that “the goal going forward is to better control traffic at the stores and prevent long lines and significant wait times.” Yes, I would guess so.

But here’s why it’s so puzzling. Build-A-Bear is not some recent phenomenon. It has had 21 years to measure customer demand, traffic flow, length of transaction, size and configuration of stores, etc. It probably could have figured out how to manage a promotion like this. Or to re-think it.

Which it thinks it has, with a new promotion called “Count Your Candles.” The same concept, except it’s only for those with birthdays in that particular month. Sounds like another opportunity for disaster. Just checking every shopper’s birthday seems like an invitation to aisle-clogging chaos.

In fact, it hasn’t been a great summer for the experiential pioneers of retail.

In early August, Brookstone (Peterborough, N.H.), which was always a “must” stop in the mall because it let shoppers mess around with its array of massage chairs, remote control helicopters and drones, digital accessories and other kitschy lifestyle items, announced it would be closing all of its mall locations to focus on its website and airport stores. Earlier in the week, it said it was considering filing for bankruptcy – again. It had been in bankruptcy briefly in 2014, before international equity investors acquired it for more than $173 million.

So, does experience count? Not necessarily.

As a journalist, writer, editor and commentator, Steve Kaufman has been watching the store design industry for 20-plus years. He has seen the business cycle through retailtainment, minimalism, category killers, big boxes, pop-ups, custom stores, global roll-outs, international sourcing, interactive kiosks, the emergence of China, the various definitions of “branding” and Amazon.com. He has reported on the rise of brand concept shops, the demise of brand concept shops and the resurgence of brand concept shops. He has been an eyewitness to the reality that nothing stays the same, except the retailer-shopper relationship.