Build your own bear for fun and for profit

Concept: Catering to do-it-yourselfers, a St. Louis company has become an attraction in malls and a hit with children.

April 30, 2002|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

Ken Bowen Jr. simply had to build his own bear.

The 21-year-old restaurant worker recently drove 45 minutes to make a birthday present for his girlfriend at the newly opened Build-A-Bear Workshop in Towson Town Center.

"I got her a polar bear and named him `Ken,'" said Bowen, who lives in Union Bridge in Carroll County.

Barely 5 years old, the St. Louis-based Build-A-Bear is what every mall in America seems to want. The chain is a hit with children, but also lures teen-agers and adults looking for a different kind of gift. And for mall owners, Build-A-Bear is among the latest retail fads in their store lineups, even as they seek tenants with long-lasting appeal.

The question: Is the company a fad, or can its success be sustained?

The store's premise is simple. You choose the kind of animal you want, stuff it, dress it, name it, and maybe even accessorize it with a backpack or a toy musical instrument. You can give it a birth certificate or personalize a story about its creation. A bear costs $10 to $25.

"We've taken the factory concept and distilled it into its most simplistic form" for mall-based retailing, said Maxine Clark, founder and chief executive.

The concept has worked. In less than five years, the company has sprouted from a single store in St. Louis to 76 nationwide. The St. Louis store made $1.7 million its first year. Last year, companywide sales totaled $107.3 million, with sales of at least $150 million projected this year, she said.

Clark can't keep up with the demand for her stores. She has plans for 35 new stores this year, but has proposals from 150 malls to consider, she said.

A foreign invasion also is in the works. Build-A-Bear has plans to move into Canada, the United Kingdom, Asia and Australia. And Clark said she's also working on another "Build-A- ... " retail concept for launch next year, but won't say what it is.

Clark, 53, has decades of retail experience from working as an executive for May Department Stores Co. Before launching Build-A-Bear, she was president of Payless ShoeSource, but left after May spun it off as a public company in 1996.

Her next project became Build-A-Bear. She opened the first store in October 1997 with $750,000, and then attracted millions more in private investments with her rapid success.

"Everybody likes to shop and have a good time," Clark said.

"I really felt there was an opportunity to create a business that was fun and entertaining."

As far as retail concepts go, Build-A-Bear is as much about entertainment as it is about selling stuffed animals. Malls today are faced with a retrenching department store industry and cautious consumer spending, but Build-A-Bear, despite being a nonanchor tenant, brings people into malls.

"There's a great deal of sameness in malls," said Richard F. Outcalt, partner in Seattle-based consulting firm Outcalt and Johnson Retail Strategists LLC. "Much of the shopping has become bland."

With Build-A-Bear, he said, "you have a phenomenon not dissimilar to the Beanie Baby phenomenon that struck in 1997. Beanie Babies were fun and kids in particularly collected them in great quantity."

The fast-growing chain has been awarded numerous industry awards, including 2001 Retail Innovator of the Year.

Clark pins Build-A-Bear's success on the stores' energy and excitement.

"We call it a theme park in a mall," she said. "One way to have a good time is to come to Build-A-Bear."

Build-A-Bear's first Maryland store opened at The Mall in Columbia in 2000; it opened another this month in Towson Town Center. Another store will open in Westfield Shoppingtown Annapolis next month.

The Rouse Co., which owns Towson Town Center and The Mall in Columbia, has three Build-A-Bear stores in its portfolio of properties, and plans to add three more, said Marlene F. Weinberg, vice president and account manager in Rouse's retail leasing division.

Build-A-Bear has brightly lighted stores with bold colors and soft, airy graphic designs of bears. "Guest bear builders" - the chain's name for its customers - select a fake-fur animal "skin" and proceed to the stuff- ing station. There, an employee positions the skin over a nozzle and the customer taps a pedal or squeezes a hand-pump to fill it with tufts of nonflammable polyester.

The chain also offers clothes and accessories - or "bear-a-phernalia" - for the stuffed animals. For a few extra dollars, consumers can add prerecorded messages or record messages on sound chips that are embedded in the animals.

A typical store is about 3,000 square feet and pulls in about $2 million a year in sales, Clark said. The stores average $700- per-square-foot in sales - more than double last year's nationwide mall retail average of $336, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.

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