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My two sons (5 and 8) have often lingered at the window of the Build-a-Bear Workshop in our nearest shopping centre as their dad and/or I try to drag them past because there are chores to be done and because going in will no doubt mean copious amounts of money being spent!! Our youngest is particularly keen on soft toys and has often talked about the Build-a-Bear Workshop as somewhere he'd like to go. So when Nana and Grandpa asked for ideas for his 5th birthday, I suggested vouchers, and we planned an outing for him to spend them. His 8 year old brother so wanted to join in that he raided his Christmas money and started to fuel the excitement that built up ahead of our trip.
The Concept ========== In the Build-a-Bear Workshop you select what kind of bear or other soft toy you would like, you stuff it and insert its heart, choose clothes for it and then print off a birth certificate.
Being a cynical old (OK, not THAT old) lady, I find this to be just a concept and a corny one at that. It's simply a teddy bear shop, isn't it? You go in wanting a teddy, you come out with one. Same as any other toy shop, except with a gimmick that is probably going to cost me money.
And yet, this is missing the point. This shop is not aimed at me, but at my kids and this is NOT how they see it. They feel they have created their own bear, they thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience and they love the bears they've brought home (sorry, they DO have names, Tom and Bill) all the more for it.
The shop floor is laid out to guide you through the steps that you follow, which are:
Choose me You select your teddy design from the options available. There are quite a few different designs (different colours, pandas, etc), including other stuffed animals, such as a rabbit and a moose, and some recognisable brands, such as Hello Kitty. My eldest chose a honey coloured bear, my youngest a white and blue bear. The different designs are in tubs as yet unstuffed with a gap in the seam that runs down their back, so you pick up your chosen teddy 'shell' and move on to the next step.
Hear me You can optionally choose to include something that the bear will say or sing (all of it in a horrifically syrupy sweet twang), thank heavens my two were more interested in pressing the buttons on the display panel at the shop than selecting one for their bear.
Stuff me One of the sales assistants helps here - they have a large machine with stuffing whirling around inside and hoses coming out of it. Having fed a hose into the back of your teddy 'shell' they then invite the child to step on a foot pedal which will start the machine blowing stuffing down the hose into your teddy. You then get to choose how soft/firm you want your teddy to be (testing is, of course, a cuddle of the newly stuffed bear). Once stuffed, you can select a heart. These are small stuffed hearts made of red or red and white checked satin material. The sales assistant took the boys through this most bizarre ritual of rubbing it with their hands to make it warm, rubbing it on their chest (heart) to make the bear love you, rubbing it on their heads to make them brainy and rubbing it on their funny bones (elbows) to make them funny. Then they had to make a wish, then give the heart a kiss, then finally put it in to the back of the bear. This sounds as corny / cringe worthy as it was, but my boys both followed every word of advice and their wishes looked serious and sincere!
Stitch me Now the sales assistant closes the bear up at the back. Before doing so they tear off the bar code on the bear's label and put it inside. This is so that if the bear gets lost, it can be taken to a Build-a-Bear Workshop anywhere where the barcode will lead to the owners details on the database (see 'Name me' below) so that it can be posted back to you. Apparently, a bear from France was brought into our local store and successfully returned to its owner through this scheme.
Fluff me You can then give the bear a 'wash' (this is in a pretend bath - no water involved) and brush them up. We skipped this as it seemed a bit pointless the bears being brand new and in no need of washing or fluffing.
Name me Once you've done all this you can choose a name for the bear and register them on the computer system which will print out a birth certificate. You also provide your postal address so that the bear can be returned to you should it be lost (see 'Stitch me' above).
Dress me Well, this is clearly where they make their money. There are all sorts of outfits for you to choose - t-shirts, shirts, jumpers, shorts, skirts, shoes, hats, etc, etc. There are football kits (Man-U and Chelsea, not ALL of them) and Batman outfits. They are very brand aware - you can buy pretend Converse One Stars and pretend Adidas Super Stars and pretend VANS. There are roller skates and skateboards. There are handbags and sunglasses and all sorts of accessories. Everything in this area is individually priced and it can all add up to quite a bit of money! (see Prices below).
Take me home They put the bear in a sweet carry box that also looks like a little house with heart-shaped windows and a heart-shaped door. There is no question that the boys will allow us to fold these flat and put them in the recycling…
Execution ======== By this I mean, how well is the concept executed - I'm not suggesting any kind of capital punishment.
The Build-a-Bear Workshop has a very strong concept, pulling the punters in and delivering on its promise. I wanted to hate it, what with it being so brash and tacky, but to be honest the boys enjoyed it so much that I couldn't.
It was quite busy on the Sunday morning that we went and there was a bit of waiting around to get onto the stuffing machine and the birth certificate database. We also waited in the queue to pay and it took them a while to open up a second till. All in all, though, what could have been a nightmare, given that over excited children and waiting in queues don't generally go together, turned out to be a pretty easy experience. The children in there were all so happy to be there and seemed to be enjoying the experience so much that there was no whingeing, crying or crazy running around by our kids or any other kids whilst we were there.
If you look at their website, they say that their mission is 'to bring the Teddy Bear to life'. They say that 'from the moment you walk in the door you know you are in a magical world'. Well, I have to say that this is probably a claim too far!! It certainly was fun, but if you can put to one side the schmatlz-fest that this place seems to an adult's eye, you will see that it really does work well for the kids.
Prices ===== Well, I thought this place would be ludicrously expensive.
It is and it isn't.
What I mean is, you can buy a bear for as little as £8, which is not a bad price for a bear of this size compared with other retailers, BUT I could pretty much guarantee that no one comes out of there spending just this amount because the extras are just so very tempting….
The bears themselves go from £8 for a basic 'Butter Bear' up to £18 for a High School Musical Bear.
Sounds cost from £2 to £5.
Then the clothes and accessories: - Clothes cost from £4 - £5 for a pair of shoes, the same for trousers and t-shirts. - Outfits (policeman, beefeater, Spiderman, Batman, Tinkerbell) range from £10 to £15. - Then there are the accessories, £4 to £5 for a hat, £3.50 for glasses, and so it goes on.
By the time you've made your way past this lot you are likely to have spent much more on these than on the bear itself. My eldest has now announced that he is saving his pocket money to return and buy another out fit for his bear. This is clearly where they are making their money.
Other Stuff ======== There's a Bearville website that you can sign your bear up to when you get home. This has games and chat and the option of meeting other bears. Not sure about this yet as we've not done much more than register.
They host birthday parties, details on their website.
You can buy on the internet.
Gift cards are available from shops and on-line. I would highly recommend this as a gift idea.
Conclusion ======== All in all, I have to conclude that our experience of Build-a-Bear Workshop was positive. The kids loved it and would give it 5 stars. I see through the consumer glitz and can't bring myself to give it 5, so I've knocked off 1, which is probably a bit mean of me.
It was a fun thing to do as a family and it was a great idea for a gift. There are 50 odd stores in the UK so there will be one not far from you. You can buy on-line, but then that really does defeat the object.