Blog: When will businesses learn that cheap deals and crowd safety go hand in hand?

By Nick Britten, Editor

Crowd safety was again in the headlines in the latest episode of a business not understanding the power of a cheap bargain.

This time it was the turn of Build-A-Bear, which had to cancel a promotion and close shops across the UK and US amid scenes of complete chaos, with mile-long queues outside shops, children crying and parents complaining of queues lasting up to seven hours.

What seemed like a good idea in the marketing department – customers pay the price of their child’s age for any bear (normally around £20 but which can be up to £52) – turned to a PR and safety nightmare, with thousands upon thousands of people descending on their local Build-A-Bear store.

In the end, with crowds getting out of control and anger mounting, the US-based company closed its doors, leaving thousands upon thousands of people disappointed.

In the immediate aftermath, metrics showed how its reputation took a severe hit, although it has been worked hard to recover

The company may have asked itself how could anticipating and planning for the amount of people likely to come would have had a significant effect on its ability to manage the queues, which outside most shops appeared willy-nilly and people left to their own devices, with all the safety implications that comes with.

Gemma Butler, marketing director at the Chartered Institute of Marketing, called it a “an ill thought-out and unprofessional promotional execution” and it’s hard to argue against that, although some pre-planning on crowd management and a better queuing or ticketing system would surely have resulted in a far more successful operation.

There are plenty of examples of crowd chaos in the face of cheap prices. Black Friday brings about fighting, pushing, shoving, the odd stampede and with it injury as customers scrap over the best deal.

And earlier this year, there was bedlam in the aisles of the French supermarket chain Intermarché after it offered a 70% discount on Nutella, causing police to be called to quell the disorder as customers tried to fill their bags. As one shocked shopper put it: “Ce n’est pas normal”. You’re not wrong. Again, no element of customer management led to a free-for-all in the incident dubbed the “Nutella riots”.


The lesson to learn here – one of many Build-A-Bear might feel – is that by failing to consider the reaction to any promotion and then more importantly how to deal with the physical manifestation of that as people descend on your store, can lead to major safety concerns, lost revenue and a PR nightmare.