July 20th, 2018

When Good Marketing Goes Bad — Lessons from the Build-a-Bear Promotion

If you have small children, you probably heard about the problems encountered by families across the U.S., Canada and UK during the Build-a-Bear Workshop promotion on July 12. What started out as a genius idea to draw customers into their stores quickly turned into a PR nightmare, forcing the company to scramble to control the damage.

If you don’t know the story, Build-a-Bear set up a one-day “Pay Your Age” sale, where the children only have to pay whatever their age is for the stuffed toy that normally runs somewhere between $10-$25 before adding accessories. A final “accessorized” bear usually costs between $20 to $35 but can certainly go higher. During this promotion, kids could pay just a few dollars for a stuffed bear, while the fee for adults was capped at $29. The company knew the promotion would be popular and was fully stocked and staffed for the expected surge in customers.

Never in the company’s wildest dreams could they have anticipated how popular the promotion would be. Parents lined up with their children by the hundreds at stores all across their U.S., Canada and UK locations before they had even opened. But excitement quickly turned into anger, as the lines kept getting longer and the wait times started to balloon, reported to be up to 6 hours by some parents.

Eventually the company was forced to start turning away customers and close stores because the overwhelming and unprecedented crowds had far exceeded expectations. Even before the U.S. stores had opened, the company announced on social media that local authorities were forcing them to limit availability out of an abundance of concern for their customers’ safety.

In response, Build-a-Bear has done an admirable job in diffusing what could have been a lingering PR problem. The company issued a statement apologizing for not being able to meet the demands of the day. There’s also a reboot of the promotion, allowing children to get the same “pay your age” discount during their birthday month, and an offer for a redeemable voucher for customers in the U.S. and Canada. The plan is designed to even out the flow of store traffic to avoid a repeat of the long lines and wait times.

What could have been done differently?

Despite being ready for large crowds due to the promotion with fully staffed stores and fully stocked shelves, the customer response far exceeded the company’s expectations. So how can other companies, when planning a special promotion, gauge the level of customer interest the event is generating, and as a result be prepared for the increase in customers?

Neustar offers just such a solution — Website Performance Management (WPM). Our WPM product monitors site traffic and can detect when there is an unusually high volume of traffic. With this tool, your business analysts, operations team and marketers can identify a sudden surge in site visits, and then attempt to quantify those results into actual store visits using your own internal metrics.

In the case of Build-a-Bear, they could have implemented a system similar to the Genius Bar appointments at Apple retail stores. Apple has its customers go online, identify the store location they want to visit, pick an open time slot, and then you take your ticket to the store. A system like this could have eliminated the long lines and hours-long wait times, giving families a pre-assigned time to show up to smooth out the flow of traffic. If all the times were sold-out, a voucher could be issued to be redeemed on another day and time.

An online system like this, which could get overwhelmed with traffic as soon as the ticketing queue system is activated, can be alleviated with the Neustar Website Load Testing service. This solution helps you get ahead of trouble to test your website traffic capacity and clear up bottlenecks that could crash your site.

With solutions like Website Performance Management and Website Load Testing, you can avoid the negative publicity of an event gone wrong due to overcrowding, while still serving as many customers as possible.

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