What's a company's obligation to the customer when it makes a promise it can't keep?

SEATTLE — Those who arrived at the Tacoma Mall Build-A-Bear Workshop store early enough to take advantage of the company's Pay Your Age Day promotion Thursday were smiling.

The one-day event promised customers could pay their child's age for a plush toy, instead of the usual $12 to $65 before customization cost.

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​But thousands of people locally, and at stores throughout the world, received nothing but a coupon for $15 off because demand apparently far exceeded supply, and some stores were even closed because of safety concerns.

"It's a little like the trip to Disneyland where you've got the three-hour wait, and then you come away with nothing," Chris Guizlo told KIRO 7 on Thursday.

Guizlo is director of The Fearey Group, a Seattle public relations company. He believes, Build-A-Bear Workshop failed to accurately anticipate customer response, failed to plan a worst-case scenario and failed to respond to criticism quickly enough on social media. Those failures, he said, could have long-term negative impacts on the St. Louis company unless it works quickly to repair its relationship with customers.

Guizlo suggests Build-A-Bear "take some of the profits stores took today and donate them to their community partners, recognizing that they screwed up."

"Make something good come out of it," he said, and suggested a $15 coupon doesn't go far enough to make customers feel better.

A University of Washington law professor, however, told KIRO 7 the company may not be legally obligated to do anything.

Steve Calandrillo believes most courts would interpret the company's promise as an "invitation to deal," not a binding contract.

"There are some exceptions to this advertising rule, where an ad is in the nature of a reward, or it is specific as to quantity and expressly indicates who and how to accept," Calandrillo wrote in an email to KIRO 7 on Thursday. "Then some courts have held the business to be bound. I'd have to look at the precise wording of Build A Bear's ad, but my best guess is that it would be construed as an 'invitation to deal,' not a binding offer or breach of contract."

That means customers who went home empty-handed today most likely do not have grounds to sue the company.