TCS Daily

Build-a-Bear Basics

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - September 17, 2003 12:00 AM

My daughter had her birthday recently, and during her party I experienced what I'll call a Virginia Postrel moment. The party was at Build-a-Bear, a place that I thought was sure to go out of business when it first opened. Who, I asked, would pay top dollar to assemble their own teddy bear or other stuffed animal, when you could buy perfectly good ones off the shelf?


Well, that was before I had a daughter, and now I know the answer: lots of little girls! And quite a few not-so-little ones, and some boys, too. It was interesting to watch the girls picking out animals, with the help of the friendly salespeople. (Note: The phrase "Would you like me to stuff your monkey?" sounds, somehow, er, inappropriate.) As my wife pointed out, the animal-and-clothing combinations that the girls put together seemed to match their personalities rather closely.


The girls were very happy, but I couldn't help thinking that quite a few bluenoses would have disapproved. Customized bears (or monkeys!) that you put together yourself? An endless array of bear-pants, bear-glasses, bear-hats, bear-dresses, bear-briefcases, and even bear-rollerskates to go with them? Who needs it? Rotten kids, spoiled rotten!


Er, except that actually they're rather nice girls, who with no prompting spent considerably less than the party budget allowed for, and who cooperated sweetly in picking things out and complimenting each others' choices. So as I was paying the bill (the cashier is an Albanian Kosovar refugee, who seems to have settled in rather well in just a couple of years, at home in that most inclusive, and most American of institutions, the shopping mall), I had, as I say, a Postrel moment: I realized why I was so thoroughly wrong about the prospects for Build-a-Bear.


Virginia Postrel has argued in her book, The Substance of Style, that aesthetic values are becoming a major driver -- perhaps the major new driver -- of economic activity. And I think she's right. It's easy to scoff at this, because aesthetics seem divorced from function: an ugly car gets you where you're going just as quickly and reliably as a pretty one, an ugly coat keeps you just as warm as a handsome one, and an ugly house keeps the rain off just as well as a showplace.


Nonetheless, attractiveness matters. We all know that an ugly spouse can be just as faithful and loving as a gorgeous one -- even, if popular legend is to be believed, more so -- but we nonetheless tend to choose mates whose looks we like. To my daughter and her friends, it's natural to spend a lot of time thinking about what looks good. And, judging by the attention that my nephews pay to the subjects of their interests (automobiles, airplanes, and, just starting, women) looks matter there, too.


So does customization. What the folks at Build-a-Bear figured out, and what I missed entirely when I scoffed at their business plan, is that people don't just want things to look good. They want them to look good their way. That's what makes Build-a-Bear work.


Others have stuffed animals that are just as attractive, but the buyers don't feel that they deserve the credit. This made me wonder where it would end. People talk about "customizing" outfits with accessories, but how long before on-the-spot manufacturing of clothing lets people design clothing themselves, or download designs from the Internet, and produce truly one-of-a-kind outfits? People are already experimenting, and I suspect that something along those lines will be coming to a mall near you soon.


And I suspect that it's just the beginning. (Design your own car? Why not?) But I also have another suspicion, which verges on certainty: when it happens, people will complain. Just as people complained about the enforced conformity of old-style mass-production, people (often the same people) will complain about the multiplicity of choices offered by new technologies.

But then, complaining is an aesthetic style too, of a sort.


TCS Daily Archives