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12 Furry Facts About Build-A-Bear

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Founded in 1997, Build-A-Bear Workshop may be the only franchise where you’re encouraged to tell employees to stuff it. The company specializes in customized teddy bears, offering options on everything from eyewear to scents. With over 400 stores worldwide and 115 million bears sold, it’s a good time to be in the business of cuddles. Check out 12 facts about their bears, the infamous stuffing machine, and how Sean Penn dressed his teddy.

1. IT STARTED WITH BEANIE BABIES.

Former Payless Shoe Source president Maxine Clark was shopping with her friend's 10-year-old daughter Katie, when they decided to search for Beanie Babies. Though it was the mid-1990s and Beanie Mania was in full bloom, the tiny collectibles were nowhere in sight. Plucky Katie was undeterred and observed that they would be easy to make. Clark was struck by the idea—a store where customers could make their own stuffed teddy—and opened the first Build-A-Bear storefront just nine months later.    

2. THE CONCEPT WAS OFTEN IMITATED BUT NEVER SUCCESSFULLY DUPLICATED.

Build-A-Bear dominated the retail market (the chain pulled in about $50 million in operating profit in 2003), but the success wasn't all positive. Clark had to contend with both copycats and suggestions that she didn’t get the idea from Katie. According to Forbes, the co-owner of the Basic Brown Bear Factory sued Clark for copyright infringement and trade secret misappropriation in 1999, asserting that she had seen his store next to a Minneapolis-area Payless in 1995 and later made an offer to buy him out. Clark told the Chicago Tribune that she proposed a purchase but never did anything illegal. The two settled out of court (confidentially) in 2001. The Tribune also reported that Build-A-Bear sent threatening letters to another plush-build chain, Friends 2B Made, for trademark infringement and for possibly creating consumer confusion.

3. THE EXECUTIVES ARE KNOWN AS “BEARS.”

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The corporate offices of Build-A-Bear are never in danger of running low on bear puns. Their St. Louis offices are known as “bearquarters,” all executive staff are officially listed with titles like Chief Executive Bear, Chief Human Resource Bear, and Chief Operations Bear. Only Chief Financial Officer Voin Todorovic is credited without a furry designation. Guy doesn’t seem like much fun.   

4. THE CHILDREN’S ADVISORY BOARD IS MADE UP OF ACTUAL CHILDREN.

While many youth-oriented retail businesses conduct market research, Build-A-Bear went a step further by enlisting up to 20 children aged 6 to 14 to populate their Cub Advisory Board. The kids critique bear clothes and advertising strategies and helped inform the store’s 2015 redesign. In 2002, Clark said stores “don’t do anything without getting their input.” The company still keeps in contact with advisors who have grown out of the role and says it values their “pawsome” feedback.  

5. THE BOXES WERE INSPIRED BY HAPPY MEALS.

In her 2006 autobiography, inevitably titled The Bear Necessities, Clark described how she stumbled upon the distinctive take-home carton that every Build-A-Bear is transported in. “I’ve always liked how McDonald’s packages its Happy Meal,” she wrote, “complete with hamburger, fries, drink, and fun toy—into one cleverly-designed box.” While the bears do not come with fries, Clark was able to wholesale the cartons (dubbed Cub Condos) more cheaply than paper bags would have cost her. They also help advertise the brand when children are seen toting them around in malls.   

6. YOU CAN ARM YOUR BEARS.

Thanks in large part to a licensing deal to carry Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Build-A-Bear offers an array of weaponry that can be bought regardless of your particular animal’s pacifism. Nunchucks, katanas, and sais are all offered. Bears can even be fitted for their own Hulk Hands.

7. “THE STUFFER” IS A 7-FOOT-TALL BEHEMOTH.

Previously tucked away in the back of stores, the giant contraption that forces polyester stuffing into newborn bears has been promoted: Build-A-Bear unveiled a store redesign in September to attract more foot traffic with a one-of-a-kind theatrical experience that features a seven-foot-tall filling machine. When the company originally opened its first stores, it had to modify a pillow-stuffing machine.

8. THEY MADE A SURROGATE MOTHER FOR A REAL MONKEY.

After hearing that a DeBrazza’s monkey in a Kent, England zoo was too ill to care for her newborn offspring, Build-A-Bear’s UK offices donated a stuffed monkey that had a “beating” electronic heart inside of it. The plush was intended to replicate how a baby monkey can feel its mother’s heartbeat.

9. SEAN PENN DESIGNED A TEDDY.

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In November 2014, Operation Bobbi Bear—a charitable organization focused on child welfare—invited a number of celebrities to customize their own Build-A-Bears for an auction fundraiser. Janet Jackson, President Bill Clinton, and Sir Elton John were among those who accepted the offer. But Sean Penn’s was the most terrifying: The bear has been heavily tattooed and appears unapproachable.

10. THEIR VIDEO ON GLOBAL WARMING TERRIFIED KIDS.

Eager to increase activity on social media, Build-A-Bear produced and distributed a series of videos in 2009 that depicted Santa Claus fretting about global warming. One polar bear tells him that at the rate the ice is melting, “the North Pole will be gone by Christmas.” Naturally, some kids were put off by the idea of Christmas being canceled. When the company was criticized for introducing a heavy topic to their young demographic and not remaining objective, they agreed to remove the videos.

11. THEY INADVERTENTLY SELL PET CLOTHING.

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With an array of fashionable apparel in pet-friendly sizes, it’s little wonder some animal lovers stop into Build-A-Bear to do some non-plush shopping. According to Forbes, the franchise has seen an increase in adults who stop in to buy clothing exclusively for their dogs. The company doesn’t endorse the practice, but says it may consider offering pet threads in the future.

12. DARTH VADE-BEAR IS A THING.

On the heels of a Darth Vader costume that can turn your fuzzy companion into a dark lord of galactic oppression, Build-A-Bear has introduced a full-blown Vader plush in time for the theatrical sequel coming in December. Featuring non-removable accessories, the 17-inch toy can be customized with the character’s respirator-enhanced breathing. For a licensing tie-in that makes more sense, consider the Chewbacca.  

Additional Sources:
The Bear Necessities: Building a Company with Heart.

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The Top Excuses Employees Give for Being Late to Work
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Expecting staff to just get out of bed and show up on time seems like a low bar for an employer to set, but some workers have trouble meeting this bare-minimum obligation. Their stated reasons can almost sound believable.

Job placement site CareerBuilder.com recently conducted a survey and asked 800 respondents in various age brackets how often they were late for work, as well as over 1000 human resource managers for data on missing workers. Overall, one in four employees admitted to being tardy at least once a month. Those aged 18 to 34 were the most frequently late, with 38 percent clocking in past their expected arrival. Only 14 percent of workers 45 and older were less-than-punctual.

As for excuses: 51 percent said traffic was the most common reason they straggled in. Around 31 percent said oversleeping was an issue, while bad weather (28 percent) and forgetting something and having to return home (13 percent) plagued others.

According to human resources managers, some workers claimed that they were late because their coffee was too hot; that they fell asleep in the parking lot; that it was too cold outside to travel; or that their false eyelashes were stuck together.

Not surprisingly, CareerBuilder also found that 88 percent of workers were in favor of a flexible work schedule.

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14 Secrets of Costco Employees
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Costco has become something of a unicorn in the brick-and-mortar industry. While employees at other chains express concerns over low wages and questionable management choices, the 200,000-plus ground troops at Costco’s massive shopping centers rave about generous pay ($13 to $22.50 hourly, depending on seniority), comprehensive benefits, and pension plans. After one year of employment, the turnover rate is only 6 percent, compared to an average of 16 percent across the retail industry. Not having to incur costs of training replacements is just one reason the company keeps prices low.

It’s no secret that Costco employees are a relatively happy bunch. But we wanted a little more information, so we’ve asked several current Costco workers about everything from pet peeves to nail polish bans to revoking memberships. (All requested we use only their first names to preserve anonymity.) Here’s what they had to tell us about life in the pallets.

1. WORKING THERE IS BETTER THAN GOING TO THE GYM.

Turns out that navigating a warehouse full of goods stacked to the ceiling is kind of like getting an all-day gym pass. “I walk about five to eight miles a day on average, and that's all within the confines of the store,” says Rachael, a Costco employee in Colorado. “When you see pallets stacked with 50-pound bags of flour or sugar or dog food or cat litter, a lot of that stuff had to be stacked by hand by employees before the store opens. Ditto for those giant stacks of shoes and bottles of salsa or five-gallon jugs of cooking oil. It's a lot of hard work.”

2. THEY CAN DO THEIR SHOPPING AFTER HOURS.

Costco shopping carts are arranged together
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While employees typically don’t get shopping discounts, they have something that’s arguably better: the opportunity to shop in a near-empty store. “You can shop after hours, and a lot of employees do that,” says Kathleen, a Costco employee in Washington state. “You just bring your cart to the front register.” The store will keep the member service counter open so workers can check out after other registers have closed.

3. THE GENEROUS RETURN POLICY CAN GET MESSY.

Costco infamously places very few restrictions on returns. Most anything purchased there can be brought back for a refund as part of the company’s overall emphasis on exceptional customer service. Naturally, some members are willing to abuse the privilege. “Members return couches that are over five years old, and interestingly enough, they still have the receipt,” Rachael says. “My guess is that they buy that couch with the intention of returning it someday, so they tape the receipt to the bottom of the couch so they don't lose it. Then, when they've worn it out and want something new, they bring it back and get a full refund.”

Rachael has also seen a member return a freezer that was allegedly no longer working. The store refunded both the cost of the appliance and the spoiled meat inside. “The meat smelled like death,” she says.

4. THEY CAN ALSO TELL WHEN YOU’RE A SERIAL RETURNER.

A shopper at Costco looks at the computer display
Tim Boyle, Getty Images

Costco purchase records typically date back 10 years or so, but employees working the return counter don’t always need to reference your account to know that you're making a habit of getting refunds. “When someone comes in to return something without a receipt and they go, ‘Oh, you can look it up on my account,’ that’s a tell,” says Thomas, an employee in California. “It tells me you return so much stuff that you know what we can find on the computer.”

5. THERE’S A CONVENIENCE STORE-WITHIN-A-STORE.

While employees are generally allowed to eat their lunch or dinner meals in the food court, not all of them are crazy about pizza and hot dogs as part of their daily diet. Many opt for the employee break room, which—in some warehouse locations—looks more like a highway rest stop. Rows of vending machines offer fresh meals, snacks, and sodas, along with a complete kitchen for preparing food brought from home. “[It’s a] relatively new addition that is being implemented at more warehouses,” says Steve, an employee in California. “It's basically like a gas station's convenience store, with both frozen and fresh meals and snacks. The only difference is the prices are more reasonable.”

6. THERE’S A GOOD REASON THERE ISN’T AN EXPRESS CHECKOUT LANE.

A Costco shopper goes through the checkout lane
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Walk into a Costco and you’ll probably notice an employee with a click counter taking inventory of incoming members. According to Rachael, that head count gets relayed to the supervisor in charge of opening registers. “They know that for a certain amount of people entering the store, within a certain amount of time, there should be a certain amount of registers open to accommodate those shoppers who are ready to check out,” she says. If there aren’t enough cashiers on hand, the supervisor can pull from other departments: Most employees are “cross-trained” to help out when areas are understaffed.

7. THERE’S A METHOD TO THE RECEIPT CHECK.

Customers sometimes feel offended when they’re met at the exit by an employee scanning their receipt, but it’s all in an effort to mitigate loss prevention and keep prices low. “We’re looking for items on the bottom of the cart, big items like TVs, or alcohol,” Thomas says. Typically, the value of these items might make it worth the risk for a customer who's trying to shoplift—and they're worth the double-check.

8. THEY TAKE SAFE FOOD HANDLING TO A NEW LEVEL ...

A Costco employee works in food preparation
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

At Costco, employees are expected to exercise extreme caution when preparing and serving hot dogs, pizza, chicken and other food to members. “If an employee forgets to remove their apron before exiting the department, they must remove that apron, toss it into the hamper, and put on a fresh apron because now it's contaminated,” Rachael says. “Or, let's say a member asks for a slice of cheese pizza. We place that piece onto a plate, with tongs, of course, then place the plate onto the counter. If the member says, ‘Oh darn, I've changed my mind, I'd rather have pepperoni pizza,’ then we have to toss the pizza that they didn't want into the trash. Once it hits the counter, it can't come back.” Some store protocols even prohibit employees from wearing nail polish in food prep areas—it could chip and get into the food.

9. ... BUT WORKING AT THE FOOD COURT CAN PREPARE THEM FOR ANYTHING.

Costco employees who find themselves behind the counter at the chain’s food court say it's one of the few less-than-pleasant experiences of working there. For some members, the dynamic of waiting on food and peering over a service counter can make them forget their manners. “Usually members are rude when they are waiting on their pizza during a busy time,” Steve says. “If an employee can excel in the food court, any other position in the warehouse is pretty easy by comparison.”

10. THEY GET FREE TURKEYS.

Costco’s generous wages and benefits keep employment applications stacked high. What people don’t realize, Kathleen says, is that the company’s attention to employee satisfaction can result in getting gifted a giant bird. “We get free turkeys for Thanksgiving,” she says. “I didn’t even know that before I started working there. It’s a nice perk.”

11. THEY CAN REVOKE YOUR MEMBERSHIP.

Shoppers go down an aisle at Costco
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But it’s got to be a pretty extreme situation. According to Thomas, memberships can be terminated if a member is caught stealing or having a physical altercation inside the store. For less severe infractions, employees can make notes under a “comments” section of your membership. They’ll do that for frequent returns, if you’re verbally aggressive, or if you like to rummage through pre-packaged produce looking for the best apples. (Don’t do that.)

12. MANAGERS GET THEIR HANDS DIRTY.

During peak business times on weekends and around holidays, the influx of customer traffic can get so formidable that managers jump in with employees to make sure everything gets taken care of. “Most people would be surprised if they realized that the person who just put all of their groceries into their cart at the registers or who helped load that huge mattress into their car was actually the store's general manager,” Rachael says.

13. EVERY DAILY STORE OPENING IS CONTROLLED CHAOS …

Shoppers appear in front of a Costco store
Scott Olsen, Getty Images

Like most any retail store, Costco prides itself on presenting a clean, efficient, and organized layout that holds little trace of the labor that went into overnight stocking or display preparation. But if a customer ever happened to see the store in the last hour before opening each day, they’d witness a flurry of activity. “It's controlled chaos with loud music along with the blaring of the forklift sirens,” Steve says. “Employees are rushing to finish and clean up, drivers are rushing to put merchandising in the steel [shelving], and the floor scrubber slowly but surely makes its way around the warehouse. It truly is a remarkable choreography that happens seven days a week.”

14. … AND EVERY CLOSING IS A SLOW MARCH.

To avoid stragglers, Costco employees form a line and walk down aisles to encourage customers to move toward the front of the store so they can check out before closing. Once the doors are locked, overnight stocking begins in anticipation of another day at the world’s coziest warehouse. “Our store has over 250 employees altogether,” Rachael says. “If all of us do our little bit, then it's a well-oiled machine that runs without a hitch.”

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