ST. LOUIS — Maxine Clark knows what it means to love a teddy bear with all your heart. When she was 10 years old, her teddy mysteriously disappeared from the back seat of the family station wagon.
Her father thought it was time Maxine stopped sucking her thumb and toting around a worn-out bear. So he conspired with a neighbor to steal Teddy.
Well, the ploy worked. Maxine stopped sucking her thumb that day.
"But I've been looking for my teddy bear ever since," says Ms. Clark.
The search didn't distract her, however, from rising through the retail ranks to become president of Payless ShoeSource from 1992 to 1996.
Today, Clark is back to carrying a teddy bear just about everywhere she goes - and creating a nationwide chain of build-it-yourself stuffed-animal stores along the way. Her official title is "chief executive bear."
Clark opened the first Build-A-Bear Workshop in an upscale St. Louis mall in October 1997. Now there are 14 stores in malls nationwide, with plans for another 25 this year. By 2007, Clark expects to have 250 stores from coast to coast.
In the process, she is redefining retail as an interactive experience.
"Everybody is talking about how online is the only thing for the future," says Ramesh Kini, a visiting assistant professor at the Washington University School of Business. "But Maxine is proving that there is a strong niche for experience-based retailing."
It is all about connecting with your customer, Clark says. "If you've made a bear yourself, you have a different feeling about it."
The original store in the St. Louis Galleria Mall sets itself apart from the typical mall storefront even from a distance. Animated bears with thimbles for hats and threaded needles in their hands beckon to passersby.
Inside, colorful stations move "guest bear builders" through the assembly-line procedure: Choose me, stuff me, stitch me, fluff me, dress me, and take me home.
Bears, or a variety of other stuffed animals, range from $10 to $40. But adding outfits, a sound box, and accessories easily pushes the price tag higher.
On a Wednesday morning just before Valentine's Day, a group of students from the Missouri School for the Blind wait for the St. Louis store to open.
When the gate goes up, they rush in to start feeling unstuffed bears and creating their new friends.
"Master bear builders" - mostly grandmothers or former preschool teachers - help place small puff-pillow hearts inside the bears and guide the children's feet to the pedal that propels the stuffing machine.
Each bear can be customized with its own sound box. Some giggle, others say "I love you" or sing "Happy Birthday." Rows of tiny hangers hold a full range of bearwear, including sports uniforms, camouflage, tutus, cowboy hats, bridal gowns, and tuxedos.
In the midst of all the hubbub, Tom Dlugos is intently building a "limited-edition" Valentine bear for his wife, Christina. He's on a three-hour break from work and came to the mall just to accomplish this mission.
"We came with my son and daughter not long ago, and my wife hinted that this is what she'd like for Valentine's Day," Mr. Dlugos says. "We had to wait in line when we came with the kids, but it was worth it."
At the computer station, Dlugos names his bear "Sweetie" and customizes a story to put inside the cardboard Cub Condo that transports newly created bears to their homes, advertising Build-A-Bear all the way.
The computers also create birth certificates and record each bear's bar code with his new owner's contact information. A tag on every bear includes the Bearquarters address. So far, about two dozen misplaced bears have been returned through this Find-A-Bear system.
Clark never wants another child to spend an entire lifetime looking for a lost bear.
"Our ultimate plan is that we'll become a national clearinghouse for lost teddy bears and be able to return bears even if they're not registered in our system by posting their pictures on a Web site," Clark says. "Then, if their owners aren't found, we'll clean them up and donate them to charity."
Clark credits Katie Burkhardt, her now 13-year-old "best friend," with helping make Build-A-Bear a success. Katie weighed in on product designs and other issues during the launch of the company from Clark's home office. Now she's part of a "board of cub advisers" who critique every new product before it makes a debut in the stores.
The immediate success of Build-A-Bear surprised Clark. The first store did as much volume in the initial six months as Clark projected for the first year. "The good news about teddy bears," she says, "is that they're ageless."
Parents bring newborns to make their first bear, and great-grandparents come in to make bears for themselves or relatives.
Nine-year-old Kiersten Thompson got a gift certificate to Build-A-Bear from her older sister at Christmas. She picked out a plaid heart for "Lucille" and loved giving the bear a fluff bath.
The best part was doing it all herself, Kiersten says.
"I thought they would just get the bear for me and do everything," she says. "But I got to stuff it and give it a bath myself."
That's what it's all about, Clark says. "We want to build on the experience and provide something that people will remember for a lifetime.
"When I was a kid, it was always, 'Look, but don't touch.' Now there's a new way to do retailing."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society