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ow you light your gift shop in a zoo or an aquarium could make or break your bottom line. If a customer can’t see the merchandise properly, they may not buy. That’s why industry professionals said lighting is an integral part of their operation that keeps customers coming into the stores and even keeps them safe as they shop.

Robert Callaway and Bradley Callaway, who live locally, shop a plush display at the Austin Zoo. Family-friendly describes the store's merchandising strategy.

At Zoo Atlanta, the primary gift shop of about 2,700 square feet and its panda gift store of about 600 square feet recently underwent a lighting makeover. The stores had been fitted with halogen lights a decade ago that gave the shops a theatrical look, but were expensive and required more maintenance than the zoo wanted to provide. Greg Cain, the director of retail sales and distribution at the zoo, said the attraction was spending about $700 to $800 a year to replace halogen bulbs that had a shelf life of about a year.

But within the last three years, the stores switched to more energy efficient LED lights that not only give better light, but offer a 10-year shelf life for drastically cut replacement and maintenance costs.

“It’s made the stores much safer,” said Cain. “And it’s made them brighter. It’s a broader, clearer light. We joked after we did it that now you can actually read a book in our book section. But mainly it’s improved the safety, security and look of our store.” Cain, who said the retail shops at the zoo sell about $2.1 million in merchandise each year, said the zoo’s gift shop is undersized for how many people visit the zoo, which makes lighting all the more important. The switch to the LED lights has helped

An LED light fixture made from Ostrich eggs at the Fossil Rim Wildlife Center in Glen Rose, Texas. LEDs are just one of the several types of light sources the shop uses.

“It’s allowed us to light every square inch of the shop,” he said. “Given our diminished capacity, we want to be able to merchandise in the most effective way possible. We don’t want to be limited by lighting.”

Even with new technology, burned out lights can be a big problem to stores looking to highlight their merchandise. Michael Davis, the retail sales manager and buyer at the Cameron Park Zoo in Waco, Texas, said he walks the store floors every day to check for burned out bulbs. The zoo has a 2,000-square-foot main store, “Zootique,” two smaller, permanent outposts and a mobile kiosk. Together, the zoo does about $500,000 of sales each year, and much of those sales depend on lighting.

“You have to make the effort to ensure your lighting is always working and check for burned-out bulbs,” Davis said. “We use a combination of fluorescent lights and track lighting to spot light on our walls. I walk the floor each day checking the bulbs and the location of the spots.”

Nicholas Itayem, a visitor from Chicago, photographed with a rock display at the Fossil Rim Wildlife Center. The unit features florescent lighting to highlight the merchandise.

When everything is installed, keeping the displays where they belong and lighting them accordingly is very important, according to Donna Steakley, director of tourism at Fossil Rim Wildlife Center in Glen Rose, Texas. The zoo’s 3,200-square-foot gift shop, which sells about $1 million worth of merchandise every year, relies on the Texas sun for natural light.

However, she said moving displays around and keeping them properly lit is still important as well. She said her store has specific lighting for different kinds of merchandise, such as track lighting on the plush section or fluorescent lights on the T-shirts. Last year, when a rhino keepers convention visited the zoo, she said she highlighted rhino-related merchandise with angled fluorescent light. At the same time, she said she keeps an eye on the budget, and uses natural light as much as possible to minimize the electric use and trim the store’s bottom line.

“At the zoo, we’re about conservation,” said Steakley, who also serves as the board president of Zoo & Aquarium Buyer’s Group (ZAG), an organization that promotes communication between buyers and raises awareness and professionalism of the field within the zoo and aquarium industry. “And that includes in my budget. We try to do natural lighting as much as possible.”

Amy Luhr, who as Austin Zoo director of guest relations is also in charge of the gift shop. In the gift store, the toys, trains and stuffed animals go on the lower shelves, and breakable materials and more adult-oriented gifts go on the higher shelves.

Melissa Rosevear, director of guest services at the Lehigh Valley Zoo in Allentown, Pa., and a ZAG board member, said she uses track lighting to highlight jewelry and specialty merchandise like animal paintings.

Once the lighting is taken care of, making sure the merchandise is in its best, most convenient locations is just as important. Amy Luhr, who is in charge of the gift shop as director of tourism at the Austin (Texas) Zoo and Wildlife Sanctuary, said the merchandise at her store that does about $500,000 in sales each year positions its merchandise for its family-friendly clientele. The toys, trains and stuffed animals go on the lower shelves, and breakable materials and more adult-oriented gifts go on the higher shelves.

The lighting of a display also should be material-specific, Steakley said. She said her store has a jewelry display that always is under fluorescent lighting to make sure the merchandise gets the proper shine.

“We have a staff that is trained to make sure the merchandise we have is always getting the proper lighting, no matter where it is,” she said.

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