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UnBEARable - Lessons From Build-A-Bear

There is nothing more powerful in retail than a line out the door. Like the McDonald's 1 million burgers sold sign or the number of reviews in an app store, lines out the door provide what Robert Cialdini calls "social proof", the phenomenon by which we do what other people do simply because we think they know better. Which means, the lines outside the Build-A-Bear stores for it's recent "Pay Your Age" promotion only accelerated sales by causing more customers to join the line. This in turn, generated unprecedented news and PR in arguably a low point in modern retail history, in the lowest sales month of the year for most retailers, bringing a refreshing flow of traffic to empty, air conditioned malls. To their credit, Build-A-Bear issued vouchers so those waiting in line could come back at another day. BUT. It wasn't enough. Store teams were so unprepared, Build-A-Bear made the decision to close their stores. Customers in line knew they were getting a voucher good to come back at another time, but the broader buying audience saw these headlines, "Sale Fail" (USA Today), "Stuffs...Pay Your Age Sale" (Washington Post), "Heartbreaking" (Reuters). I love what Build-A-Bear is and the experience it normally provides. So here's what I wish they had done differently:

Better Contingency Planning - I was once VP of Marketing for a mall based retailer when high demand at holiday time caused lines outside our store. We anticipated it in advance. So we handed out Mrs. Fields cookies to customers waiting in line, a partnership we negotiated in advance of the holiday season. We had coloring books that we designed and printed in advance so kids could color while they were waiting. When I worked in New Products at Taco Bell, we conducted simulation testing for complex new products. We simulated very high levels of demand in a handful of test stores. Then had team members solve their way out of the chaos -- on the fly. We then regrouped 30 minutes later to share learnings and hypotheses on solutions. So when we launched those products in broader markets, we had a contingency plan that was bullet proof -- it was designed and tested by store teams during extreme demand conditions. Could Build-A-Bear have done rigorous simulation testing or market testing in advance?

Kept the Stores Open - It would have changed the narrative. Headlines might have read. "So successful...vouchers" Now the buying audience perceives Build-A-Bear as unfair or cruel.

Used a Price Promotion More Strategically - price promotions work well when used strategically: to induce trial on a new, frequently purchased consumable, to pantry load to in advance of a competitive launch, to induce trial on a whole new occasion to use a product. In this case, Build-A-Bear simply moved bear purchases to earlier in the calendar year and did so at dramatically reduced margins.

How can you turn a long line or an angry mob into the best advertising you've ever had?

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