Bear (non) necessities

I mean the bare necessities
That’s why a bear can rest at ease
With just the bare necessities of life

It’s all too easy to just focus on one’s own industry but, as numerous BMF and NMBS conferences have shown us, there are lessons to be picked up from outside of builders merchanting and building materials manufacturing.

Sometimes things that seem like such a good idea at the initial planning stage end up unmitigated disasters when they get to the doing stage. Usually because there wasn’t enough of the planning before the doing started.

Promotions are especially prone to falling foul of this. Those of us of a certain age remember the marketing mess-up that was the Hoover free flights promotion. It sounds so simple: “buy a hoover product costing over £100, get two free return flights (initially to Europe, later extended – why?! – to the States). Designed to shift a backlog of products, the Hoover promotion massively underestimated the demand from the public for such a deal (remember this was in 1992, before the low-cost airlines revolution transformed our ideas about how much flying should cost us) and massively over-estimated the capability of the travel agents (again, before the rise of the internet transformed how we book travel) to manage the process. The promotion cost Hoover £48m and the jobs of most of the executive board.

So, last week, I was reminded of this when I saw the queues of parents and toddlers snaking through shopping centres and out towards the carparks as the Build-A-Bear toy company seemed to have similarly underestimated the need of its customers to grab a bargain.

I’m not entirely sure what the Pay-Your-Age promotion was designed to achieve, but if it was lots of publicity, it succeeded. Parents who signed up to the Build-A-Bear Bonus club got the opportunity to purchase any stuffed toy from the company’s range, for the equivalent price of their child’s age. Which in some cases meant a £30 stuffed toy could be bought for as little as £1. And there was massive demand – who would have thought it?!

Of course, it all went slightly wrong when the BBC was carrying stories of fights breaking out in queues and parents with small children queuing for up to five hours just to get in the door. Those poor children. Five hours when you are five is a lifetime, even if it does mean saving £15 on a piece of over-priced stuffed tat.

However, it occurred to me that maybe, it didn’t go as wrong as we all thought at first. It may have hit the news, it may have had parents furious and children in tears, but it also brought Build-A-Bear a shed-load of data. To take part in the Pay-Your-Age promotion, parents needed to sign up their details and those of their child. You could even sign up in the queue. Bingo. Data captured. A LOT of data.

Customers who were unable to purchase their bears were given £12 vouchers to spend at Build-A-Bear another day. Bingo. Ready-made customers and a far lower discount than they would otherwise have had. Plus, no parent ever escaped from Build-A-Bear having only bought the bear. Oh no. There are accessories and it’s these that generate the most margin – £4.50 for a pair of bear sunglasses, £12 for a bear-crib!!

Looking at the longer term, there is a definite cycle of customers. As children grow too old for stuffed toys and move on, there are always new customers coming through, None of whom, I guarantee,  will think “oh, not going to Build-A-Bear because of that promotion that made everyone queue for hours”. After all, people still buy Hoovers.

I think when the marketing forensics gets going, they will work out that the Pay-Your-Age promotion could have been handled differently and better – holding it as a One Day Only was certainly a key factor in the queues. However, the figures will show eventually the balance between stock shifted, bad publicity generated, brand recall generated and data for future promotions captured. It may turn out to be a Hoover-type disaster, but it could equally, if accidentally, turn out to be a stroke of genius.


I’ve known grown men traumatised by the sight of a bear with a pipe stuck up its nether regions being stuffed by one of these machines.

About Fiona Russell-Horne

Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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