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How Marketing Automation Could Have Saved Build-A-Bear’s Beary Bad Day

by Michelle McNally | Jul 16, 2018

If you have a child under the age of 12, you probably know that last Thursday was the temper tantrum heard 'round the world. Thousands of parents and children swarmed malls across the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom to secure their very own, deeply-discounted Build-A-Bear Workshop bear, only to walk away empty-pawed.

Build-A-Bear’s promotion launched quietly enough. Word began spreading over social media that the company would host a one-day-only “Pay Your Age” sale. A release before Thursday’s event confirmed that customers age 14 and under could make their own furry friend for the dollar equivalent of their age. Adorable, warm fuzzy posts were shared on social media, and all was looking good for creating many happy kids.


Pay Your Age Day had just two requirements: You must join Build-A-Bear’s “Bonus Club” rewards program, and the lucky child(ren) must be on the premises to cash in their reward. In return, for the bargain price of $5, your 5-year-old could create and take home a new plush pal. With a maximum bear price set at $29, the discount could provide parents with a hefty savings.

The Calm Before the Storm

As Thursday’s Pay Your Age Day approached, it became clear that the promotion would be wildly successful. Even so, Build-A-Bear failed to predict the extent of their success and the tenacity of deal-loving consumers. By July 11, the company was warning that it had received an “unprecedented response” to its “biggest deal EVER.” Customers were advised to arrive early on the 12th and be prepared to wait. What happened next is the thing of public relations nightmares.

Credit: Amber Barros

Hours before stores opened, customers began lining up, and chaos quickly ensued. Lines spilled out of front doors and snaked around malls. Local law enforcement officers were called to help with crowd control. Some lines reached up to a mile long, and waits topped 10 hours. Around midday, U.S. stores began turning away new arrivals, and the company posted a statement on Twitter:


Like some young customers waiting in line in the hot sun for hours on end, this promotion was now in full meltdown mode.



Damage Control Begins

Later in the day, Build-A-Bear announced to its disappointed guests that it was handing out $15 vouchers to those waiting in line. It also extended the offer of the vouchers to any of its Bonus Club members who logged into their account by midnight on Sunday, July 15 (now extended to Wednesday, July 18, 2018). These vouchers, which will be honored through August 31, take the place of the coveted Pay Your Age bear opportunity for those who missed out. By this time, Build-A-Bear was actually encouraging customers to avoid their stores for the immediate future.

“It is our sincere desire for all of our Guests to enjoy the best Build-A-Bear experience possible. As such, our goal with the voucher extension is to enable us to better flow traffic to the stores over the next several weeks to avoid long lines and wait times as much as possible. Therefore, we strongly encourage Guests to consider delaying their trip to Build-A-Bear, and we appreciate everyone’s understanding and patience in this matter.”

Friday morning, Build-A-Bear’s CEO, Sharon Price John, was on the TODAY Show doing damage control. “There was no way for us to have estimated the kind of impact, those kind of crowds,” John said. “It far surpassed anything we ever could’ve known.”

Critics were swift to share stories of hours of driving, endless lines, lost money, and disappointed children. Others responded with accusations of excess consumerism, complaints about misplaced priorities, and cries of, “How could you not have known?" This was not the “smiles” experience that Build-A-Bear founder Maxine Clark spoke of when asked about her company’s success.

The Consequences of Not Knowing

It’s too early to say, but the fallout likely won’t be too bad for Build-A-Bear. In a period of declining mall visits, the fiasco reminded consumers that Build-A-Bear still exists. Those $15 vouchers ensure another six weeks of steady flow into stores, and the new Bonus Club registrations greatly expanded the company's customer database. However, with more planning and preparation, the same goals could easily have been achieved with a lot less heartache.

Let’s refer back to Jones’s comment that there was “no way for us to have estimated…those kind of crowds.” Actually, there was a way to estimate the interest, and Build-A-Bear was doing just that – they were collecting registrations for their Bonus Club. Remember that Bonus Club membership was required to take advantage of the Pay Your Age promotion. The enormous uptick in registrations before the event certainly caused concern because the company raised a red flag the day before the sale.

How Digital Marketing Tools Could Have Saved the Day

The Build-A-Bear Workshop website utilizes an array of digital marketing tools to track visitors, optimize personal experiences, and gain real-time insight into user behavior. Because Build-A-Bear uses digital marketing technology, they had the opportunity to gather the data they needed to predict the high volume of visitors for the event. They could've also identified which stores would likely be the busiest.

The simple act of adding a form field to their Bonus Club registration would have yielded a good deal of insight. Asking guests to provide a city or ZIP code or use a “Choose My Home Store” selector when they signed up could have helped the company to identify hot spots.

Email marketing tools provided Build-A-Bear with the ability to send email updates to Bonus Club members based on city, state and/or ZIP code. They could have used these emails to advise customers of potentially long lines when they first identified an issue. Since their U.K. stores were a part of the promotion, the company should have been aware of long lines five or more hours ahead of the first U.S. store opening. Making the early decision to advise customers of long lines and offer a digital voucher at that time might have encouraged some parents to visit on a different day.

Using their website's marketing automation tools, Build-A-Bear could have featured banner sliders with information and updates about the event. These automation tools provide the company with the ability to swap out their home page banners with ones that are personalized to the visitor. Their customers in line were a captive audience who were likely looking for information. Featuring a banner that would be shown to Bonus Club members with updates and information about the voucher offer early in the day might, again, have allowed people to make a different choice.

Crunching the Numbers

Some basic math would have informed each store’s bear-making capacity. If it takes five minutes to make a bear per machine, each machine can make 12 bears per hour. There are two stuffing machines per workshop, so the hourly capacity is 24 bears. Knowing their limitations, they could have required pre-registration and ticketing, setting a cap on the number of guests allowed. If they wanted to create better crowd flow, these tickets could have been assigned at specific hourly intervals. Ticketing for 400 stores would obviously have taken a great deal of time and effort to set up. However, not needing local law enforcement to oversee your event has its perks.

It is likely that Build-A-Bear initially underestimated the interest in its Pay Your Age promotion, and their marketing team did not fully analyze registration data and act on it. However, to say that no one could have predicted the response is not exactly accurate since Build-A-Bear did have the tools to predict the on-the-ground response. They simply didn’t have the time to act on it.

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