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Fun Goes Into Overdrive at Ridemakerz

Larry Andreini founder and chief executive, Ridemakerz

In June, a new start-up concept, Ridemakerz, made its debut at Broadway at the Beach, an open-air center in Myrtle Beach, S.C. The retailer hopes to do for customized model cars what Build-A-Bear Workshop did for teddy bears. In fact, the latter is a partner and investor in the fledgling company.

Larry Andreini, Ride-makerz’s founder and chief executive (he refers to himself as ZEO), talked with Chain Store Age senior editor Connie Gentry.

CSA: What was the inspiration for Ridemakerz?

Andreini: It was inspired by two things: the hands-on interactive retail experience that Build-A-Bear Workshop has perfected, and the car-customizing movement, which has become more mainstream and significant over the last five years.

Our idea was to combine these elements in a retail experience, and to partner with leaders in both areas that would help us get to market faster and have tremendous credibility. We also recognized that a toy car is an icon of childhood, just like bears and stuffed animals. However, unlike the imaginary world of teddy bears, car culture has some very authentic requirements. If you’re going to be in that game and appeal to the adult collectors as well as the kids, the cars have to have credibility and authenticity.

CSA: What have you done to establish credibility?

Andreini: On the product side, we’ve partnered with Chip Foose, star of The Learning Channel’s “Overhaulin’.” Chip is a legend in contemporary car culture as well as a member of the Hot Rod Hall of Fame.

CSA: What about the retail side?

Andreini: We knew from the start that Build-A-Bear was the leader in providing the kind of experience we want our guests to have. Norm Pozez, a retail and real estate investor whose family founded Payless ShoeSource, is one of our key investors and, in one of those serendipitous moments, it turned out his father employed Maxine Clark (founder of Build-A-Bear) and he suggested we meet with her. In November 2005, we met with Maxine and her management team. Within a week, she had recommended Ridemakerz to her board of directors.

CSA: What were your first steps in starting the company?

Andreini: In the first round of financing, which came to $3 million, Build-A-Bear invested $700,000 and Maxine joined our board. In addition to the financing, we had to identify a manufacturer and make sure we could produce the product in a cost-effective way. Another critical component was getting the licenses for the Ford Mustang and Dodge Challenger products.

In the next round of development, investors put up millions including another $2.3 million from Build-A-Bear—bringing total investments into eight figures. Build-A-Bear also agreed to provide warehousing and distribution for our shops from its corporate DC as well as share its POS and IT infrastructure. All of those are being provided to us in return for further equity in our company.

CSA: Describe the Ridemakerz experience.

Andreini: Everything about the store encourages creativity, fun and car customization. Guests move through various zones, beginning with the Chooze Zone, where there are 10 body styles available in three colors, and any ride can have either a standard street chassis or a “monster” chassis. In the Sonicize Zone, guests choose a sound chip for the ride. In the Motorize Zone, they select either free wheel or remote control. The Mobilize Zone is where they put it all together, using tools that hang from the ceiling.

Before they begin the assembly, the guests hit a stopwatch so they can record their time and compete in the “pit” challenge. We’ve set handicaps by age so the young kids aren’t competing against older kids and adults. Next they move to the Customize Zone, where they choose tires, accessories, rims, etc. Next is the Personalize Zone, where guests park their ride in a “garage” that scans the car and issues an RIN number, our version of the auto industry’s VIN number, and each guest creates a personalized license plate and registers to receive e-mail notifications from Ridemakerz. The last zone is the Cruize Zone, where the guest purchases the ride and receives a tool-box shaped carrying case.

CSA: A second store is slated to open this month at Mall of America. What’s after that?

Andreini: We’ll open a total of four stores in 2007, including locations in Indianapolis and Fredericksburg, Va. Next year, our goal is to open eight shops, and we’re looking at locations coast to coast.

HEADQUARTERS: St. LouisNUMBER OF STORES: OneAREAS OF OPERATION: Myrtle Beach, S.C., with a second location set to open in Mall of America, Bloomington, Minn.

CSA: Are you looking at both lifestyle centers and enclosed malls?

Andreini: Yes, we’re following the Build-A-Bear model, except our plan is to grow a little faster, basically doubling our size each year. We expect to have 75 to 100 stores within five years. Our partnership with Build-A-Bear provides access to all its data about which stores perform best and which locations have higher volumes of “boy” traffic.

CSA: Who is your target demographic?

Andreini: Our customer mix will probably be 65% boys, 35% girls. Developers are really excited, because Ridemakerz will bring Dad to the mall. There are lots of things for mothers and younger boys in the mall, but the options for older boys and Dads are waning. Ridemakerz actually has a strong appeal for 16- to 30-year-old guys.

CSA: What size space are you looking for?

Andreini: Our sweet spot is 2,500 sq. ft. to 3,000 sq. ft.

CSA: In addition to Ford and Dodge, are you talking to other potential partners?

Andreini: Yes. Many of the auto companies have approached us because they see that the engagement between kids and their product at Ridemakerz will help them build the next generation of customers. Our challenge is deciding which ones to add in the limited number of slots we have. We might rotate licenses between shops so different rides are available at different times in each location.

CSA: What is your vision for Ridemakerz?

Andreini: Ridemakerz is going to take fun in the retail industry into overdrive.

Our vision is to contribute to the development of great kids. Our Web site’s educational section, Riderz Ed, includes information about automotive history, the environment and alternative fuels.

We’re also very committed to environmental concerns—we’re developing processes to recycle all of our plastics and cardboard materials—and to supporting our communities.