ST. LOUIS — After two years of making maps of where children smile in the store and standing on their knees to see from a child’s vantage point, the folks at Build-A-Bear Workshop are finally unveiling their first newly imagined store at West County Center in Des Peres, Mo.
The new prototype — the Missouri-based retailer’s first major overhaul of its stores — transforms its signature bear-making process into a more high-tech and sensory experience targeting youth who grow up with iPads.
In a preview of the store this week, company officials displayed some of the newest features for the Post-Dispatch, including the new “love me” station, where children can place their bear’s heart on a digital touch screen and add personality attributes such as “loving” and “sporty.”
Other highlights include an upgraded bathtub, where the stuffed bear gets a virtual bath and toy boats and ducks make digital ripples.
A kiosk at the front of the store, powered by Microsoft Kinect technology, allows children to play games by waving their hands in front of it.
The store updates are key pieces of Build-A-Bear’s strategy to reverse losses it has sustained in two of the past three years.
Maxine Clark, the company’s founder and “chief executive bear,” said much has changed since Build-A-Bear opened its first store in 1997 at the St. Louis Galleria.
“The 10-year-old girl of today is a lot different than the 10-year-old girl of 15 years ago, mostly through technology,” she said.
“So how we can make this fun and relevant to them?”
Build-A-Bear is constantly adding new products to its stores, but Clark said it hasn’t done much until now to change the experience in the store.
But in a fast-evolving world — Clark plans to buy the latest iPhone after just buying one last year — she said retailers have to keep pace.
The West County store swung its doors open to the public this month with a grand opening celebration.
In October and November, five more stores will open with the updated concept in California, Maryland, Michigan, Virginia and Indiana.
And next year, some of the new concepts will begin to be incorporated into other stores throughout the chain of more than 400 stores worldwide.
Analysts are reserving judgment on the new stores until they see them in person.
But Sean McGowan, an analyst with Needham & Co., said Build-A-Bear needs this reinvention so people won’t feel like they’ve “been there, done that,” he said.
“I think it’s important for them to show that it’s new and fresh without breaking the bank,” he said.
Still, he noted that the Build-A-Bear model has held up fairly well and is one of the only children’s interactive experiences of its kind.
Build-A-Bear reported a net loss of $17 million last year, with revenues of about $394 million.
Along with the new concept stores, Clark said Build-A-Bear will pare back its number of stores to boost financial performance.
It had 288 stores in North America at the end of last year, but will reduce that to about 225 to 250 stores, she said.
Gone will be stores in markets where they have multiple stores and in malls that have gone too upscale or no longer have other children’s retailers.