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10 Business Lessons to Learn from Maxine Clark, Founder of Build-A-Bear Workshop [PART 2 of 3-part series]

August 2, 2010

10 Lessons Business Owners Can Learn from Maxine Clark, Founder of the Build-A-Bear Workshop Retail Chain (No. 80 on the Fortune’s 2010 Top 100 U.S. Places to Work) [PART 2 of 3-part series]

This is Part 2 of a 3 part series. In the interest of comprehension, I am keeping the same background info in this post as was in blog post Part 1.

On November 19, 2009 (yes almost a year ago), I listened to The Florida Retail Federation’s webinar interview with Maxine Clark, Founder, Chairman and “Chief Executive Bear” of the Build-A Bear Workshop retail chain.   [I recommend any of the Florida Retail Federation’s free webinars.  See www.pathwaystoretailsuccess.com].   At No. 80, Build-A-Bear Workshop made Fortune’s 2010 list of Top 100 U.S. Places to Work. See http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/bestcompanies/2010/full_list/.

I decided to write a blog entry on the lessons a business owner learn from Maxine and her successful retail enterprise. I am breaking up my article into three blog posts.

What is the Build-A-Bear Workshop (“BAB”)?  www.buildabear.com.  Founded in 1997, the BAB is a global retailer that sells customizable teddy bears and other stuffed animals. It is the largest create-your-own animal retailer.  Headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri, the company’s motto is “Where Best Friends Are Made”.  The chain has over 400 stores in approximately 18 countries, with approximately 6,000 employees.  A publicly traded company (NYSE: BBW), its revenue in 2008 was $394.4 million. See  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Build-A-Bear_Workshop.

While Maxine Clark operates a retail chain, many of these key points are analogous to any person or entity providing a good or service

Summary of Key Points:

1. Be selective when hiring. Hire employees who want a career rather than just a job.  If in retail, especially children’s, hire employees who have an intense curiousity in pop culture.
2. Give employees a sense that you care about them and their professional development. Allow them opportunities to contribute.
3. Make sure your store experience is reflective of the brand image you want to market.
4. How will your company expand into new markets? Can you sell your products in a new location not already used by your competitors?
5. Are you keeping your product or service “relevant” to your customers?
6. Can you influence your target customer to visit your bricks and mortar store through a website, twitter, facebook, or youtube presence?
7. What synergies can you establish with other companies or charities to cross promote your products?
8. What universal human need does your product or service satisfy, if any?
9. Do you know who your customer/client is and can you broaden that demographic? Have you been talking to your customers?
10. Do you have an updated, goal-specific, time-specific, “dream big” business plan for your enterprise?

[SEE PREVIOUS BLOG POST for Discussion of Points 1-3]

4) How will your company expand into new markets? Can you sell your products in a new location not already used by your competitors?

If you were dreaming big and had the capital, where would or could you expand your business into a new market or two? Maxine reports that BAB isexpanding the company globally.  Can you think outside the box in terms of establishing the location for rendering your service or selling your good?

I was surprised to see that Maxine has BAB stores not only in malls but also in Disneyland!  See http://tinyurl.com/ygyf3zc.  I also was impressed by the fact that BAB expanded its stores to baseball stadiums.  See “Build-A-Bear Workshop and Major League Baseball Hit a Home Run for Families Looking For Fun”, http://tinyurl.com/ygmsp9t.  The in-stadium stores are open during all home games and carry a full line of officially licensed Major League Baseball® stuffed animals, branded team mascots and bear-sized clothing and accessories. “Like teddy bears, baseball is part of the American landscape,” added Clark.

5. Are you keeping your product or service relevant?

How do you keep changing the making of a bear to adapt to the ever-changing desires of the consumer? Will the sun ever set on a shop that makes teddy bears? Will kids always love buying them?

Maxine reports that BAB’s market research group is strong and recognized that, “What entertains a 10- year old today is different from what entertained a 10 year-old 10 years ago.” A successful, customer-centric retailer has the continual burden to research how to reinvent or refresh the products or service. Maxim says, “Retailers must remain ‘relevant’ to the consumer as lives are changing, as technology, as fashion changes.” Maxine boasts that her bears follow the fashion and technology trends of our time. You will see the bears donning some of the same fashion you see on Seventh Avenue in NY. Out of curiousity, I stepped into a BAB Workshop at South Hills Village mall here in Pittsburgh.  Sure enough, there were rows and rows of fashion items and accessories for these bears. From little suede UGG-like boots to Steeler outfits to bear versions of the iPhone.  I pulled out my real iPhone to snap a photo.

Maxine says that in order to stay on top of trends, retailers, especially if in children’s, should hire people who have an intense curiousity in pop culture. [I realize that this is why I am so interested in retail. I have always been interested in pop culture, sociology, anthropology. I remember at a young age, asking myself why do I want the things I do and thinking about how a specific item on my Christmas list might better define who I was as a person.]

Keeping timely and relevant, Maxine proudly reports that kids can make stuffed Frosty the Snowmen for the holiday season and stuffed Alvin and the Chipmunks in conjunction with the release of the new Alvin movie this past holiday. She also reports that ABC has created a TV special out of Hal and Holly, a BAB holiday stuffed toy moose brother sister team. This gives rise to another inquiry—how can your retail business transcend different mediums to generate more income (movie, tv show, video games, internet, show performances, dolls, music CDs, lunch boxes, books)? A subject matter that is a nice segway to POINT No. 6 ….

6. Can you influence your target customer to visit your bricks and mortar store through a website, Twitter account, Facebook profile, LinkedIn profile, blog, or YouTube presence?

BAB has created more interest in its product/brand by creating the online virtual world bearville.com. According to Maxine Clark, thirteen percent (13% ) of those who visit the online destination are “highly influenced” to visit a store or make a purchase online. See
“As Sales Dip, Build-A-Bear Leans on Virtual World”, http://tinyurl.com/yar93pn.

BAB also has a clip on You Tube re: the BAB experience. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YHp8Xtwav9w. Is your business on You Tube? I hope it at least has a website!!!! Can you make your website interactive in some way to motivate prospects to keep returning to your webpage?

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