The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Build-A-Bear’ stuffs ‘Pay Your Age’ sale after long sweaty lines, long waits and chaos

The second-floor breezeway is full of customers waiting in line to participate in Build-A-Bear Workshop’s Pay Your Age event at Westfield Countryside Mall Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Clearwater, Fla. (Douglas R. Clifford/Tampa Bay Times via AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

Maxine Clark, the founder of the wildly popular “Build-A-Bear” experience, was once asked the secret of the company’s success. “We don’t sell products,” she responded. “We sell smiles.”

On Thursday, smiles faded at the company’s stores across the U.S., Canada and Britain after a big Build-A-Bear sale drew such large crowds — with lines up to a mile long and waits of 5 to 7 hours, sometimes for nothing — that the great stuff-your-own-bear company had to stuff the sale.

For the uninitiated, Build-A-Bear is an extremely successful company with a reported 400 outlets globally. It invites kids into a “workshop,” where they choose an unstuffed “furry friend” from a range of choices — bears to monkeys to dinosaurs.

What happens is best described by the “Build-A-Bear” workshop guide: 

Choose Me: Pick that special furry friend — from a silly superhero to a sporty mascot and a cheerleading bunny to a snugly teddy bear.
Hear Me: Add a special sound effect to your furry friend.
Stuff Me: Customize your creation with sounds, scents, stuffing and, of course, our iconic special heart that holds your love and wishes.
Hug Me: Give your furry friend its first hug to make sure it’s stuffed just right.
Dress Me: Turn up the fun with outfits and extras!
Name Me: It’s official once your creation has a birth certificate of its bear-y own!
Take Me Home: Get ready for adventure with your new furry friend!

The price of the bear can range from $10 to $50 and beyond. That’s before the add-ons. You can get a plush car for your bear for $30. If you don’t want to spend quite so much, you can get a “pink beach hat” for $7. It’s “the perfect burst of color,” says the catalogue.

The costs can mount, depending on the wishes of the child, the pocketbook and the pushover quotient of the parent or other accompanying adult.

Word started circulating excitedly on Twitter a few days ago that “Build-A-Bear” was about to have a huge “Pay Your Age” sale. For one day only, the cuddlies would be sold not for the usual price, but for the dollar equivalent of the age of the lucky child, as long as the child was present on the premises.

For example, the “make-your-own-furry friend” for a 5-year old would go for the astonishing sum of $5; for an 8-year-old, $8, and so on.

Finally, the company announced, that yes, the rumors were true.

Of course, you had to join the “bonus club” rewards program to be eligible.

The full details included the fact that “outfits, sounds, accessories and scents are excluded,” said the company.

So make that a naked furry friend at the discount price.

Word traveled fast on the Internet. Customers started lining up in the early morning hours in Leeds, England, for example. When the queues reached “about a mile long,” according to the BBC, the police were called.

“Build-A-Bear is in chaos,” one shopper told the BBC. “Queuing from the store, all the way outside, approximately five-hour queue. There are even police here trying to keep the peace.”

The Charlotte Observer described “hundreds of customers in a Black Friday-like frenzy at Carolina Place Mall and Concord Mills.”

Such reports came from across the country and across the ocean.

Finally, the company shut the sale down in an “urgent update. ”

In a statement, it called for people to stay away for the time being.

Build-A-Bear Workshop’s Pay Your Age Day event generated an overwhelming response, resulting in long lines, extensive waits and disappointed Guests. We feel it is important to share that, based on the information available to us before the day began, we could not have predicted this reaction to our Pay Your Age Day event. We understand that many Guests were turned away as, due to safety concerns created by the crowds, authorities in certain locations closed Build-A-Bear stores and, in other locations, we were forced to limit the line. Unfortunately, given these circumstances, we were unable to serve all of our Guests for the Pay Your Age Day event.

However, the day before the event, the company had anticipated the outpouring. ” . . . We want to let you know that we are anticipating the potential of long lines and wait times, it said in a Facebook post. “We will make every effort to help as many Guests as possible participate in this first-time event.”

Ultimately, it offered $15 vouchers to guests in line for a future purchase.

So much for the “pay your age” deal.

The resulting headlines were not great for marketing. “‘Build-a-Bear carnage’ shuts down stores, leaving mobs of kids (and moms) in tears,” said the Raleigh News&Observer. 

“My kids love Build-A-Bear,” tweeted one David Wade. “When I saw they were having a ‘pay your age’ promotion I thought to myself: ‘I’d rather have someone cut my chest open with a spork and insert a plastic heart that makes a fake heartbeat noise’ than be there for that. It was a good call.”

“Instead of Build-A-Bear being a place of happiness or joy, it became a place of frustration and disappointment,” Timothy Calkins, a clinical professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, told the Chicago Tribune. “It really is a disaster for Build-A-Bear. You desperately want your brand associated with happy parents and happy kids.”

Not to worry too much about Build-A-Bear, however. The chaos appeared to have created a buying opportunity for its stock, which dipped at 12:30 p.m. that day and then quickly recovered. Pre-market trading Friday looked even better.