Build-A-Bear taps gaming tech to win over connected kids

By Lauren Brousell , CIO |  IT Management, gamification, Kinect

Build-A-Bear Workshops are getting a makeover. With store sales down in five of the last six years, the company needs to win back kids who want toys that feature the latest and greatest tech.

Until now, the $381 million company relied on a manual process where store associates helped kids stuff animals, wash them at a mock bathtub and dress them in front of mirrors. But Build-A-Bear knows "manual" can't satisfy digital-savvy customers, ages 6 to 12, used to playing with technology like the Wii or LeapPad. The company now wants to change how kids use the stores.

"We can't just sprinkle technology into stores because it's not about technology. It's about the experience," says Dave Finnegan, Build-A-Bear's chief information and interactive officer.

The company is revamping its design process with touch screens and gaming interfaces. "This is using technology to take the customer on a journey to bring the animal to life," says Greg Buzek, president of research firm IHL Group. Build-A-Bear has to offer a unique experience to lure parents to the mall, where most of its stores are located, he says.

Justin Bieber in a Bear

In nine revamped stores, a Microsoft Kinect screen at the entrance displays messages, such as which new My Little Pony items are available. Once inside, a kid chooses an animal, swipes on a Microsoft PixelSense screen to select its characteristics, such as generous or kind, and adds sound chips, such as a song by Justin Bieber.

Next, an employee scans the toy's barcode to link it with the child's name and birthday, which are already in the system. The barcode identifies each animal so associates can personalize the experience, such as by mentioning the child's upcoming birthday.

In a feature due this summer, kids will use Samsung MultiTouch screens to drag virtual stuffing into their toys while an associate adds the real stuff. They then move to a PixelSense station to give the bear a virtual bath. In early setups, kids could use screens to try on simulated outfits, but they preferred playing with real clothing, so Build-A-Bear removed the digital version.

Build-A-Bear has seen a 25% increase in sales, on average, in the revamped stores, and it plans to roll out 50 more high-tech stores by the end of 2014.

Finnegan says the company wants to keep kids coming back after their first purchase. To that end, it's refreshing Bearville, a virtual world where kids play with their bears online. Competitor Webkinz, which offers its own stuffed toys and interactive website, outranks Bearville in traffic and page views, according to Alexa.com, which tracks Web metrics.

Build-A-Bear plans to roll out a mobile app called BearValley this year. Also in the works: customized marketing via email, text and regular mail with QR codes kids can bring to the store for a bear spa day, birthday celebration or other special event.

"If you come back to Build-A-Bear," Finnegan says, "you can unlock a different story or experience each time."

Lauren Brousell is a staff writer for CIO magazine. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn.

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