Sales-stuffed business

My Build-a-Bear experience

Jeff Solomon is president of Calif.-based Promotion Solutions, an award-winning apparel-decorating and marketing company. He is the creator of FreePromoTips.com, an industry resource website that was developed to assist those who are serious about building their business. You can receive FreePromoTips emails by clicking on the FreePromoTips page of the website and entering your email address.  Jeff can be contacted at jeff@freepromotips.com.

The first word that comes to mind to describe this business has got to be “cute” . . . followed immediately by “profitable.” The founder’s book explains the importance of the hearts, along with a number of other basic business principles that certainly apply to the promotional-apparel industry.

The most profound business truths often come from the most unlikely places. Such a truth arose recently when I was off to present a business-building seminar to the Boise, Idaho Chamber of Commerce.

We have friends in the area, so I took the opportunity to turn the trip into a little family vacation. While visiting the local mall, I saw a business model that, once I took it all in and analyzed its implications, truly blew me away. We live in a large, booming suburb north of Los Angeles, and I travel extensively, but I’d never seen this kind of business. You’ll realize that I’ve lived a rather sheltered life—especially those of you with young children— when I confess I’d never before experienced a Build-a-Bear store. Looking around, I just didn’t know what to make of it: Here’s a store that lets you custom-build stuffed animals. And I thought I’d seen it all.

“Daddy, can I make a bear?”

. . . my 10-year-old son pleaded, looking at me with his big eyes and the smile that usually gets me to say yes. The animal my son picked out cost $18, although he could have chosen one for $12. We were on vacation, so I figured we’d splurge on the more expensive one. The experience of watching him make his bear turned out to be worth it.

After he chose the basic bear, we went to the store’s “Stuff Me” machine. There, a friendly staff stuffer was ready-and-willing to help bring the bear to life by filling it with stuffed animal material (. . . whateverthat is). The colorful machine had a huge glass window so you could see the . . . stuff . . . spinning around inside. Enjoying this kind of “behind the scenes” view somehow enhanced the experience for the two of us.

Convenient, next to this machine, was the “Sound Choices” (how clever!) station. There, for an additional $3-$10, we could add a sound to the animal. Of course my son wanted a sound, and how could I say no?  
Then, as our affable stuffer (er . . . staffer) continued filling the animal, she asked my son to grab one of the hearts from a special container beside the machine. “How much is the heart?” I wondered, bracing for another up-charge. I was pleased to learn the heart is included in the bear’s basic price. Better, I discovered, because putting a heart inside the animal is a key element in the Build-a-Bear brand. (Read on: The practical application to all this is coming!)

A company with heart

As the now-stuffed animal was being sewn, I continued looking around the store, which itself was stuffed with all kinds of accessories for the animals. “What a business!” I thought. “You sell a basic product, then provide all kinds of up-sell opportunities to make that product better, and boost sales!” And that’s when I realized this shopping experience had a business-building message that would benefit us all.

Even more interesting were the branding elements in the store. There were shoes by Sketchers, a Harley-Davidson “leather” jacket, and lots more branded items we could buy to deck out our bear. Sure, the jacket and sneakers were cute, but I recognized them as part of the not-so-subtle sales pitch designed to lure customers into buying a bunch of accessories.

Well, we ended up buying the Harley-Davidson jacket . . . plus a Harley bandana and sunglasses. I must say, the bear my son created was very cool. Appropriately, he named his animal “Harley.” (Whether Harley’s last name is Solomon or Davidson has yet to be discussed.)

At the end of the bear-building process, a computer station created a “birth certificate” for Harley. This is a brilliant business strategy that enables Build-a-Bear to stay in touch with its customers, keeping the company top-of-mind for future gift-giving.

I actually felt pretty good about the bear we created, even though the cost went from the basic $18 to the accessorized $45. As I was paying for Harley, I talked with the cashier about my Build-a-Bear experience from a marketing and business-building perspective. Right on cue, she suggested I also purchase a copy of the founder’s book The Bear Necessities of Business, subtitled “Building a Company with Heart.” The book explains why the company gives a heart to every animal.

Enhancing the value

The cashier went on to explain that Build-a-Bear was a great company to work for, and that 100 percent of the book proceeds go to a non-profit foundation set up by Maxine Clark, company founder and Chief Executive Bear. Of course, I had to buy the book, and discovered it to be one of the easiest to read but most profound business books I’ve come across. Here are a few of the most important points covered:

  • connect with your customers;
  • add value to their overall experience;
  • effectively market your company;
  • plan for its future growth;
  • give back to your customers, employees and community.

Naturally, these principles can be applied to any industry, including ours. While we may not be building bears for our clients, in many cases we are building promotions. It will serve us all well to find additional products and services we can offer that will enhance the value and the return on each promotion. (For more information on this amazing, fast-growing company, visit  buildabear.com.)

Stuff your business with sales

At a recent trade show, I attended a class taught by my industry colleague Paul Kiewiet. It was an excellent session on creating an experience with a promotion. Among other things, he said if we can make promotions truly memorable and productive experiences, we will be more effective in meeting our client’s needs.  Successful businesses in our industry will understand this powerful concept.
Such thinking goes far beyond the traditional perception some have that our industry is about selling trinkets and trash. Although they may not always remember to do it, true professionals will understand the importance of bringing something extra to their clients.

It’s true that many times customers just ask us to provide apparel, pens or other merchandising commodities. However, we should always be looking for opportunities to offer more. Just as with my Build-a-Bear experience, your clients will actually feel good about spending more money as long as they perceive they’re getting greater value.
Delivering promotions with merit and providing a positive business experience will distinguish you from those who simply sell “stuff,” automatically giving you a competitive advantage. If you follow the simple Build-a-Bear principles, you will stuff your business with sales.