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Lexi Ramirez, assistant manager, Crystal Lake Cave, Dubuque, Iowa. Gem sluice bags filled with sand, gem stones, shark's teeth and fossils are popular at the attraction.
By Karen Appold

ave and cavern attractions are a big hit with families and school groups. Given this, it’s important to have your gift shop stocked with merchandise that will appeal to younger visitors—such as plush, a variety of toys, and rocks and mineral keepsakes designed for children.

At Rushmore Cave in Keystone, S.D., April Hagen, business and retail manager, said any local animal plush—such as bison, raccoons and coyotes—are a hit at the 1,200-square-foot store. “They are extremely popular, as children have seen or may see them during their visit throughout the Black Hills,” she said. The store, which displays plush at a child-friendly height, garners approximately $300,000 annually.

Raccoon plush is tops at Raccoon Mountain Caverns in Chattanooga, Tenn., which is no surprise given the cavern’s name. “It’s what we’re known for,” said Michael Knight, gift shop manager. Dinosaurs are also popular at the 1,000-square-foot store, which brings in $150,000-$200,000 per year.

Knight said creating a well-organized display is the key to boosting sales. All plush of the same kind are placed together, which makes it easier for shoppers to see all of the choices and make up their minds.

Mark Bishop, owner/manager, Niagara Cave, Harmony, Minn., said unicorns are the most popular plush with both girls and boys alike. “They are available in a variety of colors, which adds to their popularity,” he said.

Plush is displayed by the restrooms. “Since many people use them, they are apt to see the plush,” Bishop said. They are placed on a large wall display, and are also stacked in an array of bins that is accessible to children.

Top Toys
In the toy category, rock and mineral themed merchandise is the biggest hit with kids. Julie Rubel, owner, Crystal Lake Cave, Dubuque, Iowa, said gem sluice bags filled with sand, gem stones, shark’s teeth and fossils are popular. “Purchasers take the bag out to the sluice to pan for treasures,” said Rubel, who added that guests find the activity adventurous and mysterious. “They have fun doing the sluicing, which is like panning for gold, and are excited to see what’s in the bag. Whatever they find they can collect and keep.”

The gemstone bags, which feature the cave’s name, city and state, are displayed on a barrel against a rustic background inside the 1,700-square-foot store. “This helps to glorify it, because when someone thinks of gold mining they imagine it to be rustic,” Rubel said. Outside near the sluice are some pretend sticks of dynamite and a mining cart on a railway to make the experience seem more realistic.

Steve Thompson, general manager, Thunder Mountain Mining Company, a gift shop located at Bridal Cave in Camdenton, Mo., said the top two sellers in the category of children’s toys are Gemstone Mining from Sandy Creek Mining Company and Bag Your Own Gemstones from Village Originals. “This could also be used as a game or as rocks and minerals that appeal to children,” he said. “Kids love rocks and both are hands-on activities that provide a nice souvenir at a great price point.”

The gemstone mining area has a large sluice at the entrance of the main building with a waterfall that attracts everyone’s attention. The bag-your-own gemstones has a large display (over half a ton of gemstones on a 4- by 8-foot table) of the tumbled stone and is highlighted by large LED spotlights that make the gemstones sparkle. The rock and mineral shop has 2,400 square feet and the sportswear and souvenir shop has 800 square feet, which combined bring in more than $500,000 annually.

Bishop said cave/mining helmets are popular for kids. “They can use them in the cave and they are great for camping and to play outside at night at home,” he said. “The majority of our toys are located together in a high-traffic area at a level that’s easily accessible to children.” The store’s hands-on policy allows kids to touch and experience the variety of products, giving them the opportunity to make an attachment to the toy. This increases the likelihood of a purchase. The 1,400-square-foot store garners $175,000 annually.

Niagara Cave also offers a large range of items that are made of rock, rock and mineral specimens, fossils and tumbled stones. “The individual tumbled stones or bag your own tumbled stones are by far the most popular individual rock or mineral product sold in the gift shop,” Bishop said. “However, our gemstone mining operation outsells everything, excluding our cave admission sales.”

Caver helmets are also the most popular toy at Rushmore Cave. “Children love to wear them on their cave tour and use the light to see close up inside the cave,” Hagen said. “We like to highlight this section using fun laser lights. Children love it!”

Bernard Ingram, general manager, Mercer Caverns, Murphys, Calif., said having a large selection of rocks and minerals and a wide price range works well for the 1,200-square-foot store, as guests can find something either small or large that will fit into their budget. “We offer tumbled stones either by the piece or by the bagful that cost from 25 cents to several dollars, and we also have large mineral specimens that cost several hundred dollars or more,” he said.

In addition, he believes the mining rough is its top seller is because it is an interactive experience. “You’re not just buying a bag of mining rough, but you’re engaging in the experience of mining,” Ingram said. “Since we’re in the California gold country, it’s an experience that a lot of our guests especially enjoy.”

Knight says soapstone animals are a great seller. “We offer a different assortment of animals, including snakes, gorillas, cats, horses and unicorns,” he said. “They are a hit because they are unique, cheap and look cool.”

Smaller toys are placed closer to the counter, making them more of an impulse buy. “When someone checks out they see them, grab one and add it to their purchase,” Knight concluded.

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