Let’s see: I’ve recently made fun of the old, the infirm and defenseless members of the animal kingdom. Seems like the time is right to set my sights on young children. I’ll do that via today’s website review, which visits Buildabear.com.
For those of you not familiar with this innovative retail concept, the Build-A-Bear Workshop confusingly describes itself as the “leading and only” global company that offers an interactive make-your-own stuffed animal retail-entertainment experience. Outlets exist mainly at malls in 400 locations around the world, though as early as 2007 they discovered the potential of expanding their “pawprint” by using something called the Internet.
I hope you enjoyed that little play on words there because this 12-year-old company uses and abuses the technique with merciless frequency throughout its corporate culture. In their online financial filings, the CEO is officially retitled the “chief executive bear,” while other corporate leaders include the chief operating bear, chief financial bear, chief marketing bear and chief information bear. (I’ll bet government auditors at the Securities and Exchange Commission got a real pleasant chuckle out of those.)
But it doesn’t stop there. World “bearquarters” are located in St. Louis, their online interactive experience is described as a trip into “cyBEAR space,” the corporate general counsel is called the “chief bearrister,” and the fully constructed plush toys are dressed in the “beary latest furry fashions.” You can’t help but wonder if their next annual report will be describing hard financial times causing executives to accept “golden bear-achute” retirement packages and a down-sized workforce portrayed as experiencing “involuntary hibernation.”
The actual in-store experience is described in great detail in the “About Us” portion of the site. There are eight distinct “animal-making stations” that sound like a rejected song title from the Who’s “Tommy”. These are Choose Me, Hear Me, Stuff Me, Stitch Me, Fluff Me, Dress Me, Name Me and Take Me Home. Despite the bear motif, there is no Bite Me.
At the Choose Me stop, customers select from over 30 varieties of creatures, including the decidedly non-bear-like bunny and kitty. At Hear Me, a sound chip is inserted into the still-unformed toy, which can include pre-recorded options like playful growls and “I love you” messages, or you can record your own customized 10-second choice like “kill your parents.” At Stuff Me, children fill their new friend with “just the right amount of huggability” using ingredients that are elsewhere described as “not likely to contain lead.” At Stitch Me, the new best friend is neatly closed up after a barcode (not a bear-code?) is inserted that will allow it to be reunited with its owner should it ever be lost or, more likely, sold for 25 cents at next year’s yard sale. Fluff Me gives a final grooming, Dress Me allows you to purchase a boutique wardrobe, Name Me generates a personalized birth certificate, and Take Me Home provides you with a Cub Condo to serve as a handy travel carrier and new home.
The cold-hearted part of the website discusses investor information for those more interested in turning a “pawfit” (that one’s mine) than simply having a wonderful childhood experience. The upbeat overview references a business plan based on the “widespread appeal of stuffed animals” that has thus far generated sales of over 70 million units. They plan to grow the concept with overseas franchises and the eventual introduction of new product lines. (My suggestion, especially if they move into Russia: a taxidermy service that would stuff actual bear skins.) They’ve increased their minority interest in an enterprise called Ridemakerz, an early-stage interactive concept that will allow customers to build their own cars. The virtual world is expanding with the Hal and Holly Moose webisode series and a Stuff Fur Stuff loyalty program.
Still, all these innovations are happening straight into the headwind of the worst economy in decades, and potential investors have to be informed of a downside. There’s a risk to young children in some of the toys that contain a magnet, so these products are clearly labeled with a tag reading “I have a magnet.” There’s a concern about ethical manufacturing and fair labor treatment, especially in China where many of the components are manufactured. (Presumably, Chinese pre-teens don’t get quite the same thrill as their Western counterparts when they’re building their bears in hot warehouses for 14 cents an hour.) There are some legal cases involving intellectual property and trademarks, so the company has to “bear the expenses” required to maintain and defend the patent. In 2007, they had to write off $1.6 million of inventory, primarily excess Shrek merchandise.
The financial data for the last several years doesn’t look especially rosy. A miniscule 0.2% decline in same-store sales in fiscal 2005 grew to a 6.5% drop the next year, a 9.9% fall in 2007, and a 14% decrease in 2008. The stock price fell from $31.50 per share in early 2007 to a bank-like $3.02 per share in the last quarter of 2008. Definitely what you’d call a bear market (once you get into the puns, they’re easy and fun!)
Executives are moving aggressively though to properly position Build-A-Bear in such a challenging environment. The “Friends 2B Made” subsidiary, which consisted of locations inside or adjacent to the workshop and offered make-your-own dolls, has been closed and liquidated. I’m speculating that the Choose Head, Choose Torso, Choose Creepy Unblinking Eyes production line wasn’t quite as warm and fuzzy as it is with the bear parts.
And, there’s probably hope in the online sale of founder Maxine Clark’s 2006 book, The Bear Necessities of Business. Clark draws upon her decades of business experience to give readers an inside look into what it takes to launch, nurture and run a viable company in the twenty-first century. She demonstrates again and again how the desire to create a pun – in this case, the suggestion that you do only the absolute minimum to succeed – outweighs everything else in the interactive make-your-own stuffed animal retail-entertainment experience segment of the market.
I can barely wait for the sequel.