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Life is busy. Perhaps you have noticed I have been on a sabbatical of sorts from the blogosphere. Or perhaps not. My break from blogging started with a family holiday to the US and Mexico and then stretched out as I tackled the work mountain that formed in my absence.  I finally have my head above water and am taking advantage of a flight to Melbourne, where, hopefully, new retail tales will be told. But for now, personal stories from the Americas.

I am very lucky to work in an industry I love. Most days I do a lot, or at least a little, of what I love. I have come to appreciate and admire retail as an immersive and emotional experience and I was both impressed and lighter in the pocket when my children each had an opportunity to experience this magic first hand.

Top of my daughter’s wish list for our trip was a visit to Build-A-Bear. One of the kids at school had returned from a recent holiday full of stories and, of course, product, and so the Build-A-Bear bug was caught.

One balmy evening after a full day at Disneyland, we found ourselves in Downtown Disneyland, ready for a G&T, dinner and a spot of retail therapy before our flight to Mexico. Then in the distance we spied Build-A-Bear and a wish was about to come true.

Build-A-Bear Workshop Downtown Disneyland

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Build-A-Bear Workshop, headquartered in Missouri, sells teddy bears and other stuffed animals. They also sell an entertaining and interactive experience during which a stuffed animal of the shopper’s choice is assembled and customised to be uniquely theirs. Build-A-Bear Workshop is the largest retail chain operating this way.  With a motto “Where Best Friends Are Made", it is a place where people love their work. There were more delightful and enthusiastic team members in this store than in Disneyland; no mean feat.

Build-A-Bear embodies the popular “Me-tailing” trend, the customisation of a product that is especially for me and me alone. My husband found this overwhelming as we had just completed a Ridemakerz experience (you’ll have to wait for that in my next blog). Here were kids, parents and siblings of every shape and size, making their own magic at 8.30pm.

First, choose your bear which, minus the magic, is an unfilled cushion. My wee girl is currently Star Wars mad and her end goal was a Darth Vader inspired creation. Naturally we picked up every imaginable type of bear carcass to feel it, rub it against our skin, smell it. There are two storeys of bears in different colours, dressed in different ways. Limited edition bears, branded bears and animals, cute bears and strange bears. We touched every bear before the chosen one was selected (the third one we had picked up). $US25 dollars, I shrugged, thinking the financial sting wouldn’t be too painful. Famous last thoughts.

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Wee girl choosing her bear

So much freaking choice

We joined a massive line which was very exciting, apparently.  The team engage and talk with the kids, giving them stickers and managing the wait time perfectly. They are seasoned experts at sprinkling some fairy dust and enhancing expectations. “Michelle is going to help you build you bear in a few minutes. I know she can’t wait to meet you and your bear. How exciting. Are you excited? Have you thought of a name yet?”

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The line we had to wait in to “create” our new friend

Michelle was a fairy without wings. Big open eyes, a kid friendly voice, totally focused on the little person and their bear. There is a giant machine full of stuffing whizzing around in it which you can see through the glass front. She explains what is going to happen and how wonderful this is going to be.

My girl pushed a pump with her foot which blew stuffing right into “Beary” and he started to take shape. Next a sound was selected and put inside (cue Star Wars music at $9.99) , pump more stuffing then you select a special heart. Mummy did guide darling girl to a more price appropriate heart than the $14.99 number. Michelle then asked her to get the heart and rub it on her tummy, then her eyes, ears, head, you get the picture, so Beary could get special attributes from his new owner. Then she had to close her eyes and make a special wish holding this heart super tight. She then kissed the heart and put it inside Beary while mummy shed a tear. A wee girl beamed and Beary was sewn up by hand at the back while Michelle talked about all the adventures they would go on. Truly special.

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Pumping beary full of fluff and bringing him to life

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Picking a sound for Beary

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Thank god my girl isn’t a FROZEN freak

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Making a special wish

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Getting finally put together

And so followed more retail genius moves. A selection of clothing, accessories and other things bear might need were on offer, like a bed, roller blades, a friend. Selections duly made, we sat to create the special birth certificate for Beary, now formally Darth Vader, plus validation for a code which means if he ever gets lost and is returned to Build-a-Bear they can locate his rightful owner. Contact details locked and loaded, we lined up to pay for Beary, plus an upsell of a special carry bag $4.99.

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Sitting down to load Beary’s details and make his birth certificate

Forbes (26 May 2015) recently profiled Build-A-Bear owner and founder Maxine Clark who started the business in 1997 and today operates more than 400 stores worldwide. Over 140 million ‘furry friends’ are in the hands of children around the world. I loved her comments that following her heart played such a key role in her success that she made ‘the heart’ an iconic part of the Build-A-Bear experience.

The experience extends beyond the bricks and mortar with the website continuing the magical journey, enhanced by a strong social connection through Pinterest, Facebook and Instagram. The YouTube channel is the star in the social firmament.

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Our journey has continued back in NZ with regular emails and check-ins on Darth.

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This was a very special retail experience my daughter will remember for ever. Without doubt, the most memorable step was when she chose a plush heart for her bear, made a wish, and put it inside the bear as it was being stuffed. Not only is it a metaphor for how Clark built her business but doubtless how she fills her pockets with cash.  

The bear, Beary, Darth, cost $89.95. So much for the $25 starting point, but my daughter definitely experienced a retail fairy-tale.

Clark has created what every successful retailer should be considering. Don’t just sell a product, instead reinvent the way consumers experience your products and services. Teddy bears have been around for years, but here they have been reimagined in a way that children will remember forever. That’s brilliant thinking, and is impeccably delivered.

Last word goes to Darth Vader – at home back in NZ.

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Next blog we will explore the new mover and shaker in the Me-tailing kids space, Ridemakerz. If you loved your Scaletrix or ever aspired to own and operate a super remote controlled car, you will love what this has to offer.

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