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ne of the first things tourists learn when going to one of our nation’s top cave and cavern destinations is that there’s a difference between a cave and a cavern. A cave is any cavity in the ground that is large enough that some portion of it will not receive direct sunlight. A cavern is a specific type of cave, naturally formed in soluble rock with the ability to grow speleothems, secondary mineral deposit that takes on fascinating designs.

It’s no surprise then that gift shops at caves and caverns offer a wide variety of items dealing with rocks, minerals and fossils that would make any enthusiast smile.

The gift store at the Smoke Hole Caverns burned down in 2009 and was replaced with this 26,000-square-foot showplace. In addition to cave souvenirs, the shop offers hunting and fishing supplies, boots and West Virginia-related items.

Penn’s Cave & Wildlife Park in Centre Hall, Pa., offers a 4,800-square-foot gift shop featuring a host of interesting merchandise.

“The top products of our 2012 season were rock specimens and gemstones – rough, tumbled and polished – although plush came in at a very close second,” Manager Terri Schleiden said. “We are looking to expand our inventory of jewelry, apparel and rocks for our 2013 season.”

The store makes sure to refresh the shelves throughout the season so returning customers will always find something new.

“We rely heavily on our well-informed reps, and also try to attend several shows each year in order to stay current with new and projected trends,” Schleiden said. “People are always interested in the rocks, but if you have unique and eye-catching items beside them, you can make a bigger sale.”

Whitney Henny, office manager of the 2,000-square-foot gift shop located inside Cumberland Caverns in McMinnville, Tenn., finds ornaments and high-end jewelry to be among the best sellers at the store.

“Our best seller is the gem kit where you buy a bag of dirt and you can sift it outside to find gems,” she said. “We also offer a series of patches, which have been here for more than 50 years, and our adventure groups that come back time after time enjoy these.”

The store also tries to follow the latest trends and found success with an onyx diamond in 2011 and a marble turtle in 2012. Henny gets ideas for these items from the national gift show and by talking to sales managers at other caves about what they are seeing.

A bear-themed display at Penn’s Cave & Wildlife Park in Centre Hall, Pa. “People are always interested in the rocks, but if you have unique and eye-catching items beside them, you can make a bigger sale,” the store’s manager said.

April Islip, retail manager of Howe Caverns in Howes Cave, N.Y, found a great deal of success in 2012 with the Magnetic Hematite also known as Sticky Stones.

“Hematite has a magnetic property that allows them to stick to each other as well as other objects. If you toss two of them in the air close enough that they come together, they make a buzzing or chirping sound that the kids have a lot of fun with,” Islip said. “The spheres are inexpensive and attract both adults and kids of all ages. Bought in larger quantities they can also be used to make jewelry and various items as you would maybe use Legos.”

The souvenir shop is always looking for new items to freshen up and expand the variety of merchandise it carries. Most recently it added Pennybandz bracelets and necklaces that allow people to make jewelry out of their souvenir flattened pennies.

“Every year we reorder favorites as well as add some new items, always hoping to cater to a wide variety of guests that may visit us,” Islip said. “In retail, it is sometimes difficult to determine if a trend is worth investing in, but over the years you use your experience in people’s buying patterns to determine if you want to give it a try. Other factors are how much of the product the company is requiring you to buy and what the retail price point would be in the store.”

Pam Good, manager of the gift shop at Skyline Caverns in Front Royal, Va., said the shop did well with clothing items to keep people warm in the caves.

“Our best seller for 2012 were hoodies. People generally don’t think to bring a jacket during the summer and spring and the cave temperature is 54 degrees, so they need a jacket,” she said. “Also, the salesman suggested a new color, paprika, which he said was very popular and it truly was our most popular color. We had to reorder more hoodies three times during the peak season.”

In addition to the usual assortment of rocks, fossils, minerals, apparel, books and jewelry, Diamond Caverns, LLC in Park City, Ky., carries Kentucky handcrafts and locally-made items in its 1,200-square-foot store.

“We have a barbeque sauce made here that’s a big seller,” said Eric Helton, operations manager for the caverns. “The problem is that although people want stuff made here, those items cost a little more, so we do try to balance in gift items that don’t have our name on them and aren’t as location specific.”

Amethyst and agate sell well and the store ups its rock and mineral offerings every year.

A mineral display at Penn’s Cave & Wildlife Park. “The top products of our 2012 season were rock specimens and gemstones, rough, tumbled and polished, although plush came in at a very close second,” the store’s manager said.

“We find a lot of people – kids and adults – are interested in them and we always increase that portion of the budget to allow us to bring in more minerals,” Helton said. “It’s a souvenir that people will remember they bought at the caves.”

It’s hard to think about caves without thinking of the bats that lurk inside and souvenir shops are savvy enough to supply their stores with plenty of bat-related items.

“There are bats everywhere in here. They are the symbol of the caves,” said Barbara Loflin, lead staff, who helps run the gift store at the Grand Caverns in Grottoes, Va. “Still, our top product is the mining helmet with the light on them, which makes the kids feel like a real caver.”

As people leave the cave, they are staring right at a big postcard display and these are also big sellers for the shop. As parents look through the postcards, children are rummaging through the store looking at gems, toys and books.

“We offer items with photographs of formations from the cave, such as The Lilly Room or the Bridal Chamber, rooms we are known for,” Loflin said. “We put them on key chains, magnets and shirts.”

Ann Dunlavy, general manager of the 3,000-square-foot gift store at Lincoln Caverns and Whisper Rocks in Huntingdon, Pa., said the gift store’s main focus is on rocks, minerals and gift items.

The store also carries a lot of bat merchandise as it does bat education at the caverns. Items with the nocturnal mammals include books, stuffed animals, key chains, T-shirts and hats.

“About 60 percent of our business is educational programs for schools and scouts so we have a very kid-friendly gift shop,” she said. “We carry a lot of rocks, minerals, jewelry made from natural items and plenty of items for people to learn about caves and geology.”

The store’s biggest seller – both volume-wise and dollar–wise – is a kit that allows people to pan for gems.

“We have a combo ticket that packages it with admission and I would say that 75 percent of those with kids will purchase this,” Dunlavy said. “We also have a section with wildlife items from Pennsylvania, such as Whitetail deer and black bears.”

A group of managers from cave and cavern attractions all meet once a quarter to talk about products for the gift shops, and this helps Dunlavy decide which merchandise to order in the future.

“We all work closely together to talk about what’s selling best and get some good advice from our peers,” Dunlavy said.

Children’s apparel and gifts at Penn’s Cave & Wildlife Park. The attraction’s 4,800-square-foot store has something for everyone, and the management will expand its inventory of jewelry, apparel and rocks in 2013.

When the gift shop at Smoke Hole Caverns, Seneca Rocks, W.Va., burned down in 2009, the owners decided to create a 26,000-square-foot gift shop offering cave souvenirs, hunting supplies, fishing supplies, boots and West Virginia-related items.

“The one thing you won’t find is a bat,” said Jill Teets, gift shop manager. “We’ve tried over the years, but no one wants any bat merchandise because our stuff is more upscale and they can find something much nicer than a T-shirt with a bat on it.”

Big sellers include Montana Silversmith jewelry, Swan Creek Candles and John Deer toys.

Four Tips for Attracting Guests to the Souvenir Store

Many cave and cavern gift shop retailers have the edge of both selling tickets from and exiting guests through the store. Here are additional tips from shop officials on how to keep souvenirs on the minds of customers during and after their visit to the main attraction:

•“The top tip I can give for attracting shoppers to the souvenir section is to have items everyone recognizes and designs that catch the eye. You want a guest to see your shot glass and say, ’I have to have to that for┬ámy collection!’ ” - April Islip, Howe Caverns, Howes Cave, N.Y.

•“We attempt to keep our popular Penn’s Cave logo branded items, which include mugs and magnets, within easy sight and reach of our visitors. These are displayed close to our tour ticket counter and exit aisles.” - Terri Schleiden, Penn’s Cave & Wildlife Park, Centre Hall, Pa.

• “Offer fair pricing and unique items that you won’t find at most department stores and that gets people interested.” - Barbara Loflin, Grand Caverns, Grottoes, Va.

• Offer the panning for gems package with the ticket up front to ensure that people will spend some time in the gift store afterwards. - Ann Dunlavy, Lincoln Caverns and Whisper Rocks, Huntingdon, Pa.

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