Build-A-Bear Workshop

Linda Tucci
workshop.buildabear.com

 

1st place -- Ease of Navigation

1st place -- Most Innovative

2nd place -- Business-to-Consumer

2nd place -- Best Use of Graphics

2nd place -- Most Unusual

 

To be sure, visitors to the Build-A-Bear Workshop Web site cannot cuddle the furry creatures, but the online shopping experience comes close to capturing the real deal.

Shoppers can do everything from stuff and stitch a virtual animal to install customized sounds. They also can register for a birthday party at Build-A-Bear's 14 (soon to be 39) stores nationwide, apply for a job or catch up on the latest games and news in the Beary Newsworthy newsletter.

"Most Web sites are marketed toward adults, whereas our brick-and-mortar stores are marketed to children. The challenge is to recreate the store experience online," said Maxine Clark,chief executive bear.

When Clark launched Build-A-Bear Workshop in the Saint Louis Galleria in 1997, she knew she wanted a Web presence, too. The original site, launched two years ago with help from local graphic designer Bev Schofield, offered 10 animals and 10 outfits for sale, information about the company and a means for customer feedback.

Customers soon made it clear they wanted every animal, every outfit online. Overseen by Schofield, about 3,000 photos were taken by Todd Studios on Washington Avenue over 25 days early last summer. Schofield's design group then prepared the photos, stripping out the background, correcting color and creating animations (bears being stitched, getting their red satin heart implants, etc.).

The next step: redesigning the site as a portal for children. Enter Master Web Bear Ronnie Gaubatz, a local freelance Web designer. "I started in August with the insane expectation of building an e-commerce site and launching in October. Basically Bev and I were here 24 hours a day for a period of six weeks," Gaubatz said.

She explored several computer languages and settled on Cold Fusion, which allows designers to serve up Web pages "on the fly," meaning that pages are created based on user input. For example, if a customer chooses Curly Bear ($15), Cold Fusion remembers and responds accordingly when the customer selects the Deluxe Wedding Ensemble ($15) or the two-piece Nurse Outfit ($8) as Curley's dress-up attire.

Armed with broad outlines of what they wanted, Gaubatz and Schofield went to Internet World, a weeklong conference in New York, to refine ideas and take a crash course in Cold Fusion. Back in St. Louis, Gaubatz worked on the "back end," entering the 3,000 products, while Schofield worked on the "front end," designing the site's "look." Then they worked closely on navigation.

"We wanted it to be as simple to order from as Amazon. The only problem was that we offer so many choices, so ultimately we had to think outside of that model," Schofield said.

At the end of October, at 3:30 in the morning, with Clark and several staff members on hand, they launched the site. "We hit submit, and it worked. It was a very emotional moment," Schofield said.

Clark estimates her company has spent about $150,000 on Web development. Sales are not the primary focus, but the online store is rapidly approaching the brick-and-mortar per store average of $2 million a year.

Going forward, Schofield and Gaubatz are "really excited" about new software (Flash) that will improve animations. The company also will analyze how to market the site. Build-A-Bear has not advertised it, except through its stores.

Fulfillment for online orders is handled in a space behind the company's modest headquarters at Page and Interstate-170. When orders pour in, Schofield and Gaubatz and staff often pitch in to stuff and stitch bears. "Every single bear is made from scratch," Gaubatz said, "with a wish on the heart, the same as when you buy one in the store."

Schofield and Gaubatz, both 33, just finished taping a segment for Oxygen Media, the new women-owned media group. But when they go to New York for industry shows, they are still anomalies in the male-dominated world of Web design.

"It's us and bunch of nerdy little geek boys," Schofield said. "We put on our baseball caps backwards and our floppy shoes and motor through with the boys."

"We know our Star Wars facts," Gaubatz said.