At New Hall Of Fame Store, Build-A-Bear Adds More Heart

Build-A-Bear Workshop has always been an experiential brand. But a new store at the Fan Engagement Zone near the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio is taking the interactive toy-building adventure to a different level. Chris Hurt, the retailer's chief operating officer and experience officer, tells Retail Insider how the new store fits into its growth strategy.

Retail Insider: First, tell us about the new store near the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It's a very different kind of Build-A-Bear. What are you hoping it accomplishes?

Chris Hurt: One of our business goals is to move into more non-traditional locations. We're in plenty of malls, but we are growing our footprint in family-centric tourist locations. We're in places like Pier 39 in San Francisco, Pigeon Forge in Tennessee and Pier Park in Panama City. These are places where families go to have fun and make memories, and they've been tremendous locations for us.

Retail Insider: And the football connection for the Hall of Fame?

Hurt: People want a souvenir from that visit that reflects the great memories and the great time you had in Canton. We have a license with the National Football League, so when you put all that together, we decided it was a great idea.

Retail Insider: Are you backing off traditional mall expansion?

Hurt: We're still looking, and we'll open in places where we can find deals that make sense for us. But we see our growth coming from these family-centric tourist locations. We've got a location on every Carnival Cruise and partnerships with Sea World and Busch Gardens.

Retail Insider: Retail has become intensely digital in the last few years, and I know you just completed an all-new website. How else has the business changed?

Hurt: We were very fortunate. In 2019, we started a partnership with Salesforce, and our digital transformation was already underway. We were already working on digital Build-A-Bear experiences -- it's in 3D. And we've been able to grow the digital experiences tremendously over that time.

We didn't initially have a "buy online, pick up in store" option, and we were able to put that into place quickly. We were able to turn stores into mini-distribution centers. We've been able to put all those things that were already on our roadmap into place.

Retail Insider: How has your marketing strategy changed as a result?

Hurt: It's all more digitally focused, whether through Instagram, TikTok, paid digital marketing and personalization. We're targeting our messages. Take the Pokémon collector–it's one of our biggest properties, and we can let them know when new ones are coming out. We've improved our reach -- and our overall business.

Retail Insider: How do you describe the brand to people who don't know it?

Hurt: We're an experience brand built for all ages. We add a little more heart to life. And there's been a real shift. I think people in our organization said, "We're a brick-and-mortar retail company that happens to have a great brand." We've changed that, and now people say, "We're an amazing experience brand that happens to have brick-and-mortar retail as one of our revenue streams." That filter has changed how we market the brand.

Retail Insider: COVID-19 shut many malls down and disrupted schools in many ways. Has your audience changed much as a result?

Hurt: We've all heard so many buzzwords and cliches about the "new normal," whatever that means. But one thing we think has changed is that [COVID] has put a higher value on experiences.

Build-A-Bear is often credited as the first "retail-tainment" brand, and as people came out of COVID, they wanted these experiences. Most people are shocked when they learn that 40% of our business now comes from teens, tweens and adults. But I think that's the shift -- people want more experiences.

Initially, parents were looking hard for these experiences. They may not have taken that big family trip or left the country. But because many of the stores are in drivable tourist locations, we were able to fill that. Maybe they took a weekend trip to Myrtle Beach, and we were able to be a part of that.

It's a shift toward experience and away from stuff. That doesn't mean there can't be something physical at the end, but the point is making the bear, not the bear itself.

Retail Insider: What do adults look for in their bears?

Hurt: We're a multigeneration brand celebrating our 25th anniversary this year. So many parents came in as kids themselves. So our adult division is different. We've got things like Deadpool and bears linked to Valentine's Day.

Retail Insider: What are the best-selling bears?

Hurt: The Count Your Candles Bear is one of the top performers. Any kid can come in during their birthday month and pay how old they are -- so a 3-year-old pays $3. We want to make sure that everybody can have a Build-A-Bear experience.

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