History of Build-A-Bear Workshop

Updated on September 14, 2018
Allison Golden profile image

A. Golden is a writer and editor living in Alabama. They graduated with a B.A. in English.

Build-A-Bear Workshop's first logo.
Build-A-Bear Workshop's first logo.

Brick-and-mortar retailers across the nation have been struggling to stay afloat in recent years. Gap, Sears, RadioShack, Best Buy, and Macy’s have all faced mass downsizing.

Earlier this year Toys “R” Us closed its remaining stores down, ending its decades-long legacy as the leading toy chain in the U.S.

It’s a major blow to the industry, to be sure. But it’s not the end. One toy store has managed to survive amidst the ‘retail apocalypse’: Build-A-Bear Workshop.

What led to the conception and development of this toy chain, and how has it endured in wake of declining retail sales?

"The Bear Promise," a pledge displayed in Build-A-Bear stores.
"The Bear Promise," a pledge displayed in Build-A-Bear stores. | Source

Origins & Opening

Founded by Maxine Clark in 1997, Build-A-Bear Workshop gives children the opportunity to create their own personalized stuffed animals. Guests go through an in-store process in which they choose clothing, accessories, sounds, and even scents for their furry friend.

The first spark of inspiration came to Clark as she was shopping for Beanie Babies with Katie and Jack, her friend’s children. Katie remarked that it’d be easy for them to make a Beanie Baby, and thus, the framework of Build-A-Bear was formed.

Many adults were skeptical about the business model. After all, why go through the labor of creating a stuffed animal when you can buy a pre-made one instead? Another group, however, gave an enthusiastic thumbs up to the idea: children. It was their approval that led Clark to formally pursue the project.

The first Build-A-Bear Workshop opened in 1997 in St. Louis, Missouri. It was an instant hit—within four months, the company’s sales were at nearly $400,000.

By 2005, Build-A-Bear had 170 stores spread across 40 states and Canada.

The original Build-A-Bear Workshop storefront.
The original Build-A-Bear Workshop storefront. | Source

Digital & Rebranding Ventures

As time marched on, Build-A-Bear realized it would need to change up some elements in order to stay up-to-date with its demographic.

The first major change was to its digital presence. In December 2007, the company launched a new website: Build-a-Bearville. Similar in format to games like Club Penguin and Gaia Online, the site allowed users to explore a bustling virtual world, accessorize their homes, and dress up their avatars and furry friends.

If a child made a furry friend at the store, they could enter that friend’s unique birth certificate code on Build-a-Bearville to see it come to life on the screen. Users with a registered furry friend had access to exclusive features and games.

Build-a-Bearville ended its services in late 2014, but for the seven years it was around it seemed to enjoy a healthy amount of traffic. The existence of sites like Bearville Insider are a testament to its past popularity.

Screencap of Build-a-Bearville in 2012.
Screencap of Build-a-Bearville in 2012. | Source

On the brick-and-mortar side of business, Build-A-Bear took on a multi-year plan to revamp its stores beginning in 2011.

The first overhaul involved the implementation of technology to make the store more familiar for children growing up with tablets and iPads.

In Clark’s words: “The 10-year-old girl of today is a lot different than the 10-year-old girl of 15 years ago, mostly through technology. So how can we make this fun and relevant to them?”

Digital games powered by Microsoft Kinect were placed in front of the store. A new station, “Love Me,” featured an interactive touchscreen that let children add various personality traits (funny, sporty, etc) to their stuffed animal’s ‘heart.’ At the “Name Me” station— the final step in the process—they could then use a “Bear-O-Scope” to view these traits on a digital screen.

A digital screen at the "Name Me" station displaying a bear's personality attributes.
A digital screen at the "Name Me" station displaying a bear's personality attributes. | Source

But the largest-scale changes took place when Sharon Price John took over as the new Build-A-Bear CEO following Clark’s retirement.

From 2013 onward, Price led a company-wide brand refresh strategy that made a number of significant developments, including:

  • A new logo (shown below).
  • An updated storefront design.
  • A seven-foot-tall stuffer placed in the center of the store.
  • A renewed focus on licensed products, including Paw Patrol, Pokémon, and My Little Pony.
  • A virtual entertainment center (http://play.buildabear.com/) showcasing games, arts & crafts activities, and Build-A-Bear’s official YouTube channel. This replaced the now-defunct Build-a-Bearville.
  • A ‘selfie’ station dubbed “Smile for Me.”

Did these rebranding efforts succeed? It certainly seems so. Build-A-Bear’s 2017 fiscal report marked the company’s fourth consecutive year of profitability.

Build-A-Bear Workshop's current logo.
Build-A-Bear Workshop's current logo. | Source
Photo of a Build-A-Bear store in 2015 showcasing the giant stuffer.
Photo of a Build-A-Bear store in 2015 showcasing the giant stuffer. | Source

Recent Fallbacks & What Lies Ahead

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing for Build-A-Bear, though. The company drew criticism earlier this year for the handling of its “Pay Your Age” promotion.

The “Pay Your Age” promotion was a one-day event on July 12 that allowed guests to buy any stuffed animal for their current age in dollars (pounds in the U.K.). A bear for a five-year-old, for example, would only cost five bucks.

It was an impressive deal—perhaps too impressive. Stores were so swarmed with customers that the company had to cut the event short, closing its lines early that afternoon. Many children and parents left empty-handed and disappointed.

The event was largely deemed a failure. However, the promotion actually boosted sales in the long run, making it a financial success. The stores saw more than half a million visitors that day.

Additionally, close to one million people signed up for Build-A-Bear’s loyalty program, which was offering a new “Count Your Candles” deal. The deal lets members pay their age for a special “Birthday Treat Bear” during their birthday month.

Birthday Treat Bear, a special bear included in the "Count Your Candles" deal.
Birthday Treat Bear, a special bear included in the "Count Your Candles" deal. | Source

So what lies ahead for Build-A-Bear? Only time will tell for sure, but it’s clear that the chain offers something retailers like Toys “R” Us lacked: an experience. People don’t go to Build-A-Bear Workshop to simply make a transaction—they go for the fun process of choosing, personalizing, and bonding with a new furry friend. And that concept has taken them far.

The writer of this article is not affiliated with or endorsed by Build-a-Bear Workshop. All company products and logos are trademarks of Build-A-Bear.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

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