Build-A-Bear offers customers vouchers after shutting down lines for 'Pay Your Age Day' promotion

Katie Nanak used Build-A-Bear Workshop’s “Pay Your Age Day” promotion as a bribe all week, encouraging daughter Claire, 5, and son Teddy, 3, to go to bed on their own to earn their bear.

When the day of the sale arrived Thursday, the Logan Square family headed to the Build-A-Bear store at Oakbrook Center. They expected long lines. They didn’t expect the scene that greeted them.

“It was pandemonium,” Nanak said. “People brought chairs, but the line didn’t seem to be moving much.”

The Nanaks weren’t the only ones surprised by the turnout for the event, which allowed members of the chain’s rewards program to create a stuffed animal in its stores and pay a price matching their current age. The crowds across the country were so overwhelming that the chain said it either closed stores or cut off lines at its stores in the U.S. and Canada “per local authorities … due to crowd and safety concerns.”

“We feel it is important to share that, based on the information available to us before the day began, we could not have predicted this reaction to our Pay Your Age Day event,” Build-A-Bear said in a second statement later Thursday, citing “long lines, extensive waits and disappointed” customers.

The company, which did not respond to requests for comment, said it issued vouchers for a future purchase to customers who remained in line. Vouchers also will be available to members of the chain’s rewards program who log in to their accounts before midnight on Sunday. The vouchers will be good through Aug. 31.

However, while the promotion would have allowed customers to create a bear for as little as $1, depending on their age, the vouchers are good for $15 off. The make-your-own teddy bears typically start at $12.

The incident is a marketing black eye for the St. Louis-based company, which recently reported quarterly financial results that it said didn’t meet expectations. “It is critical that Build-A-Bear Workshop’s retail locations remain a popular destination for kids and families to make special memories,” CEO Sharon Price John said during a late May earnings call about its results.

“Instead of Build-A-Bear being a place of happiness or joy, it became a place of frustration and disappointment,” said Timothy Calkins, clinical professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, on Thursday. “It really is a disaster for Build-A-Bear. You desperately want your brand associated with happy parents and happy kids.”

Calkins likened the promotion to Red Lobster underestimating the popularity of its endless crab promotion in 2003, an incident that ultimately cost the company $3 million and President Edna Morris her job. While the branding problem may be short-lived, the longer-term challenge for Build-A-Bear may now be trying to justify the higher prices the bears typically command, Calkins said.

At Oakbrook Center, adults and children remained outside the store hours after Build-A-Bear announced on its website and social media accounts that it was closing down lines at stores nationwide.

Nanak, who is nine months pregnant, wasn’t among them. She immediately knew she didn’t want to wait in the sun that long and told her kids they’d have to come back another day. They tried to get a soft pretzel at a nearby Auntie Anne’s but left when that line proved too long as well.

Meanwhile, the Build-A-Bear line had quadrupled in size, she said. “It was just people leaving and kids crying. I tried to use it as a teachable moment.”

After they left, she took the kids to Target, where they each picked out a toy as a consolation prize. But her son still burst into tears in the car. Hours later, before going down for a nap, he asked again if they’d be able to go back, she said.

“My kids were disappointed; I felt heartbroken for them,” she said. “As a mom, you feel so bad.”

Not all shoppers at Oakbrook walked away empty-handed. Juana Hernendez arrived around 10 a.m. with her daughters, 18-year-old Alejandra and 1-year-old Ximena, and left shortly after 4:30 with two bears, one for $18 and one for $1.

Customers at the mall who were in line when the company announced the closures were allowed to remain, and those who tried to join the line afterward were given vouchers.

Oak Brook Police Cmdr. Ben Kadolph said the mall notified the department on Wednesday that it expected about 500 people for the promotion. Based on an aerial photograph posted online, Kadolph estimated the crowd was closer to 1,000. Still, no Oak Brook officers were called to the mall in response to the event, he said.

Lindsay Kahn, a spokeswoman for mall owner GGP, said in an email that employees “were focused on making sure things ran smoothly surrounding today’s event and did everything they could to accommodate people in line.”

At Build-A-Bear’s Chicago store in Water Tower Place, crowds started lining up around 9 a.m., according to security personnel, and the line was cut off just before 3 p.m. — when it was still about 50 families deep.

The line was mostly made up of preschool-age kids, but it was a largely happy and patient bunch. Few tears were shed even after hours on the floor of the mall.

Those who arrived after the line was closed got a $15 voucher for a future bear purchase. Triplets Isabelle, Mckenzie and Samantha Cairns, 8, just missed the cutoff, but mom Diane, who heard about the promotion on Facebook, said she didn’t mind the trip and would go back another time to use the voucher.

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