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A merchandise arrangement at the Lake Tobias Wildlife Park. Name-dropping and good placement help sell more small souvenirs.
By Sara Hodon

or zoo and aquarium gift shop operators, it’s easy to focus on big categories like apparel, books, and plush gifts when it comes to profit centers, but inexpensive items like molded plastic figurines, magnets, postcards, and keychains can all add up to a surprisingly healthy bottom line. Retailers said that the best way to move these items is to place them strategically throughout the store and make the most of branding by stocking as many pieces with the venue’s name on them as possible.

“Our best-selling animal models are a line by a company called Mame Jo,” said Tatum Miller, souvenir manager at Lake Tobias Wildlife Park in Halifax. Pa. “Boys tend to like the lions and tigers, and girls like the zebras and horses. I think they sell well because they’re inexpensive, they don’t break, and kids like animals.” Lake Tobias is located in the quiet Pennsylvania countryside and offers visitors a number of attractions, including a petting zoo, safari tour, reptile and exotics facility, and baby animal program.

An exterior view of the Zoo Store at the Woodland Park Zoo. The zoo has two gift shops.

Kim Miller, retail manager/buyer at St. Augustine Alligator Farm in St. Augustine, Fla., said that their best-selling animal models are Safari’s 6-inch Alligator, Crocodile and Albino Alligator. Miller said they sell well because, “These figurines are so realistic looking. We also sell a lot of the Animal tubes, which are clear plastic tubes filled with 12-15 small molded plastic animal figurines. We sell one with gators, and they have one with rainforest animals and one with snakes,” she said. The St. Augustine Alligator Farm is one of Florida’s oldest continually operating attractions, opening in 1893. Besides housing every living species of crocodile, the alligator farm features a wading bird rookery, lemur exhibit, python cave, albino animal exhibit, exotic bird and animal exhibit, Florida native reptile exhibit, and a host of other attractions for both the young and young-at-heart. Their gift shop measures 1,800 square feet. “These smaller items are a great add-on to any purchase. Everyone looks for a souvenir to remember their experience here. Nothing’s better than something animal-specific with our logo,” Miller said.

A display of locally-made huckleberry jam at the Woodland Park Zoo store. Binoculars is the best-selling small souvenir for the zoo.

Michelle Dulaney, store director at Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Wash., said their best-selling small souvenir in their two gift shops measuring a combined 4,000 square feet are their binoculars. “They are inexpensive, logoed and functional. Anything featuring the animals of the Great Northwest or snowy animals also tends to be our best-seller. They represent the zoo well and the uniqueness of its environment,” she explained. “The habitats for these animals are also mesmerizing at Woodland Park Zoo. If you can link a product to a guest through an emotional connection, you’ve got a winner, not only in sales, but in perpetuating the conservation message behind it.” Woodland Park Zoo is home to a number of domestic and exotic animal exhibits and also features ZooTunes, an annual summer concert series, and WildLights, a holiday light display.

Retailers agreed that branding has a huge influence on the sale of souvenirs. Large or small, items tagged with the park’s name are practically surefire best-sellers. At Lake Tobias, Miller said, “As for the other small souvenirs, magnets sell like crazy—I’ve noticed that the ones with the park’s name on them sell better—shot glasses, and keychains with the name of the park and some kind of animal on them.” Small items showing some type of animal image, such as custom patches, spoons, and pins, sell equally well at St. Augustine. Dulaney said that from a practical standpoint, a small souvenir is a better choice for many zoo visitors. “Many people travel from out of state and cannot bring a giant stuffed giraffe on an airplane,” she noted. “Small souvenirs help keep a memory alive when the guest gets home, without having to pay extra luggage fees.” Tatum Miller agreed, saying that small souvenirs simply fit more family budgets. “Customers don’t always want to spend a lot of money. They just want something small with an animal and the name of the park on it. We sell a lot of reasonably priced items and we do try to keep our prices low,” she said.

Apparel, mugs and toys make a backdrop for Sales Associate Victoria Demers, who is shown holding magnets, at a Woodland Park Zoo store. In additional to housing its residents, the zoo offers a summer concert series and a holiday light display.

Unlike larger items that require considerable shelf or rack space, small souvenirs can be used to fill gaps in the inventory practically anywhere in the store. In fact, retailers say it’s wise to be strategic with placement, and utilize as much shelf or wall space as possible for these smaller items. Grouping is also effective. “Displaying the smaller souvenir is sometime challenging,” Kim Miller said. “We utilize baskets, bins and crates to try to keep everything organized and shopable.” Dulaney said her store relies on pegs or magnet walls to display items. “We keep them near the cash wrap or near the impulse bins,” she explained. “Being able to have large amounts of best-sellers on the floor is important during high volume times to maximize efficiency.” At Lake Tobias, Miller said she uses the larger items to draw customers’ attention to the smaller pieces and consider them as add-on purchases. “We put our magnets on metal boards at each end of our plush displays. We have noticed an uptick in sales because of this placement—it’s kind of different,” she said. She also strongly recommends placing small items near the register. “We keep our pens and pencils in bins and by the register. We had some trouble selling them a few years ago, but after we moved them, they started selling,” she said.

Tatum Miller, gift shop manager, photographed with the magnet wall at the Lake Tobias Wildlife Park. Inexpensive animal models are best-selling for the park.

Retailers said that the impact of smaller souvenirs on a store’s overall bottom line should not be taken lightly, and just as much thought and planning should be put into buying, promoting, and displaying the small souvenirs as the rest of the store’s inventory. As Dulaney pointed out, “Even a small item can have great meaning. Whether it represents a special memory with an animal at your venue to a guest or perpetuates a great fair trade or Made in the USA message, touch on those points. Signs and staff training mean a lot when turning a magnet into a message and/or memory.”

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