If you aren't familiar, Build-A-Bear ran an in-store promotion yesterday called "Pay Your Age," where your bear would only cost what your age is. So, if you brought your 3-year-old child in, that bear is $3. Not too shabby. The goal was intended to boost Build-A-Bear's loyalty numbers, as you had to be a part of their rewards program to participate, and boy did it generate a viral response. There's no shortage of footage showing mall lines that were reminiscent of Black Friday.

When it comes to marketing and PR stunts, I'm a tough critic, but I have to give credit where credit is due -- it was exceptionally well-designed. It created urgency, an in-store experience, and was novel -- which is quite a powerful formula. 

Then all hell broke loose.

In reaching a near-immediate viral response that flooded malls, quickly creating wait times of up to 8 hours (no, that's not a joke). Mind you, you had to wait in line with your child (or children). Build-A-Bear was then forced to act, turning away new guests around 4pm ET. 

OK -- so, think about it -- your PR campaign eclipses all expectations, but due to overwhelming interest, you're now faced with turning away customers and risking inventory issues which will inevitably generate in a compounding, negative experience. 

What would you do? Apologize and offer a $15 voucher? I don't think so. Maybe Build-A-Bear imagined it would go something like this:

Build-A-Bear Rep: "We're so sorry, everyone -- inventory is now depleted. Please accept this $15 voucher in exchange for waiting in line for hours with your children." 

Customer: "Awesome! We'll come back on a less busy day. It's nap time for them, anyway. Thanks!"

Absolutely not. Sure, if your 3-year-old would have cost your visit a grand total of $3, you're netting $12, but that's the missing the point. At a time when tens of thousands of customers are facing an incredibly negative experience, globally, that is an opportunity for a company to go out of their way to delight a customer, or at least try to.

Instead, corporate felt the pressure and gave downstream marching orders to all their stores to simply offer the $15 voucher -- with the expectation that the customer takes time out of their day, again, and go back to the store some other time.  

It's really a painful miss. 

Lack of preparation & ownership

First and foremost, this teaches us an incredible lesson about preparation (or lack thereof) and appreciating the need for contingency & operational plans. However, the biggest failure from my perspective was Build-A-Bear's lack of ownership and being clearly unprepared. Build-A-Bear issued a response on July 12th, stating in the second sentence, 

"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."

Oh, you could not have predicted this and weren't prepared? No worries at all. I'm sorry, but as a publicly traded company who pulled in $357.9M in 2017, the 'Build-A-Bar' is much higher. They should have owned up to the mistake and went out of their way to delight the loyal customers you may have lost, and certainly not made a hasty decision in times of duress.

Instead of the $15 voucher, here's the response I would have wanted to see as a customer:

"We don't know at this time what we're going to do to make this right, but rest assured, we will. We have your contact information and will reach out as soon as possible. Thank you again for your loyalty and please give us a chance to make it up to you."  

And for retailers, especially amid a retail apocalypse, consider a digital contingency plan. In this case, it most certainly should have been factored in, allowing purchases online or at the least, redeemable vouchers.

Today more than ever, every customer counts. Whether you're a solo-preneur, mid-sized business, or Fortune 1000, we need to learn from these mistakes. One negative experience can cripple a company. Own up to it and encourage proactive preparedness. 

Until then, this sums it up. 

Published on: Jul 13, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.