A Report on Merchandise and Operations at Zoos and Animal Sanctuaries

   From post-pandemic changes to name-dropped and custom merchandise, zoos and animal sanctuaries interviewed for this article provided information on attendance, products, and keeping things sanitary.
   At the Montana Grizzly Encounter located in Bozeman, Mont., Co-Founder Ami Otten said name-dropped merchandise is a staple at the small, 150-square-foot gift shop located at this grizzly bear rescue and attraction. “We do try to keep as much of our items as possible all about our bears, so they are all very customizable toward our animals. All the magnets, coffee mugs, all our pictures, T-shirts, and hats have our name; we also have stuffed animals that say Montana Grizzly Encounter.” She added that the store hasn’t forgotten man’s best friend, either. “We also have dog toys and do bandanas that are all name-dropped as well.”

A plush bird display in the foreground of this photo from the Austin Zoo’s shop. Name-dropped merchandise sold well for the store before the pandemic.

   Currently the venue is closed; but Otten says there is an online store. However, it is not very active. “We have not been pushing our merchandise. We have been focusing instead on live streaming of the bears on our Patreon page, montanagrizzlyencounters@patreon.com. It allows viewers to join up and donate to see the live videos.” She noted that prior to the pandemic closure, attendance was rising, and attendees were very supportive of the venue’s mission. Currently, they’re seeking more followers on their Patreon.
   Post-pandemic, she said, “We have an Instagram and Facebook account, and during the winter holidays, I do post about merchandise gift ideas. We may have to focus on that more; and if it gets going well, we would definitely keep the Patreon.”
   At the Austin Zoo in Austin, Texas, Zoo Director Patti Clark is also not selling more merchandise online at this time. “We don’t have an online store to begin with, unfortunately.” When the zoo is open – like Montana Grizzly Encounter, it is closed due to the pandemic — this non-profit rescue zoo has a number of strong-selling name-dropped items in their gift shop. “Our gift shop manager, Alicia, does really well with our T-shirts, and our mugs and water bottles, which are all branded with our name. The water bottles do especially well, in part because it is really hot here in the summer, and people want to stay hydrated,” she explained.
   Attendance was up this year prior to the closure. “We were doing phenomenally well. The weather was much kinder here in Texas this year. The last couple of years, we had rain that seemed to be targeting us every weekend. This year, we had clear weekends.” With a rural setting at the edge of Austin in the region’s Hill Country, Clark said there are changes she foresees when the zoo can reopen. “We will rethink our curated tours, and add an online retail shop. The challenge will be to operate mostly in open air. Any activities in interior, closed buildings we will try to move those out of the enclosed areas. That is our plan for when we can reopen.” She added, “If you can do online ticket sales, and you don’t need person-to-person interaction on the front end, and you don’t need buildings in our case, it becomes much safer. We don’t need to utilize the indoor bathrooms, we have portable toilets and hand-washing stations that we installed to assist with this right before we closed.” Additionally, Clark revealed, “We would have to take a hard look at animal feeding areas where people can touch the animals, and consider how we would handle that. Perhaps we wouldn’t do it anymore all, or we would have staff do that. And obviously, there would be lots of gloves and masks, and hand sanitizer. Things overall are going to be quite different when we are able to reopen.”
   Clark hoped that reopening will happen soon: “Our animals know there are no guests and you can tell they miss them,” she said.

A view of merchandise at the Austin Zoo’s gift store. With no web store, the shop isn’t selling merchandise online during the pandemic.

   The Forever Wild Animal Sanctuary in Phelan, Calif., is also closed due to the pandemic. Manager Kiah Almquist was, however, offering merchandise online. “We don’t have an online purchasing portal like Shopify, but we have a social media page up that features pictures of merchandise, sizing, and things like that. People can purchase via PayPal. They can just personal-message us in PayPal with what items they want.”
   She described all her merchandise items: hoodies, shirts, and hats – as each item having “our logo on it, as well as information about our website and name.”
   Post-pandemic, she suggested, “There will be a huge change in the way people come in to see the animals when we are allowed to open. We are still deciding on what that will mean. We will have a grand re-opening; we have the idea in mind already for a three-day weekend in the works. We will also offer the ability for people to donate to the animals in our system.” Along with those ideas, she said, “Currently we are wearing masks and gloves near the animals; and when preparing food for the animals, we have different PPE that we use.” The reason? “Since we have seen stories that big cats can get the corona virus from humans, we are keeping everything very well sanitized. We want to make sure our animals will not get infected, if in fact they are able to be infected.”

A wall of plush and other merchandise at the Austin Zoo’s gift store. Name-dropped water bottles sell well for the shop during the summer.

   Ashton Powell, gift shop manager at Out of Africa Wildlife Park in Camp Verde, Ariz., has a different situation entirely at her shop and park. “We are open, and we have our gift shop open. It’s not doing nearly the sales that it normally would, of course, and we don’t have an online gift shop presently, but that will hopefully come at some point this year.” Regarding name-dropped merchandise, the answer is yes. “Some of our T-shirts are name dropped, as are coffee mugs, beer steins, magnets. Some of our jackets have our embroidered logo on them. But, we are not heavily into branded items for Out of Africa exclusively, no stuffed animals are branded for example.”
   To keep merchandise and shop sanitary, Powell related, “We are wiping down constantly. We are going through a lot of cleaning products, wiping everything on an on-going basis throughout the day. We are definitely all gloved, although our employees are not masked.” The 800-square-foot gift shop also limits the number of people entering the store at one time, and encourages social distancing whenever possible. Inside the park, Powell asserted, “We are a drive-through attraction; most people now are coming in and staying within their car, doing the drive through, seeing the animals, and then leaving again, not stopping at the gift shop.”
   The venue began 2020 with admissions that were “looking at being on par for the best year we ever had on sales. There were so many other businesses that expressed the same feeling – I wish we had never said it out loud. It was the top of the roller coaster, and we were heading down hard, but of course we didn’t know that.” Admission is “down insanely now,” she reported.
And post-pandemic? “I think we will still have quite a bit of inventory to sell, for one thing; we won’t have to amp that up immediately,” she stated. “It’s hard to tell what will happen, and whether our model may change a bit. That remains to be seen, because as a drive-through attraction, things may stay about the same.”
   According to Samantha Haley, gift shop manager at Bearizona, name-dropping products are and will always be important because it “caters products to your location. It’s what makes the item special for your location versus buying it at any store. Customers like variety when buying items. Some top name-dropped items that do well are shirts, magnets, ornaments, and stickers. Stuffed animals can get personalized bandanas or ribbons. Customizing a product is how customers can also “collect” their purchases. So maybe they collect a magnet from each place they go – or that sticker or shirt – to remind them of their travels. Name-dropping items is what makes it unique.”
   At this time, Bearizon’as gift shop is closed due to the risk of coronavirus. Haley reported that “This situation did create a perfect opportunity to open our online store here at Bearizona Wildlife Park, giving our customers a way to make a purchase of a keepsake and be able to support our wildlife animals. All the products we offer online are name-dropped and themed to our location. In this unprecedented time, many people are getting together to continue to help support the local businesses. Offering name-dropped items provides a souvenir to remind customers of the places they are happy to support.” 
    She noted that the pandemic has added even more importance than ever to cleaning and sanitizing. When the 10,000-square-foot shop is able to reopen, she said, “It’s important to consistently clean and sanitize the surfaces that are touched often – counters, credit card keypads, and door knobs.  Since social distancing and masks have been a practice by many and help keep the spread of germs at bay, we’ll also encourage customers in line at registers to be spread apart.” 
   With travel limited due to the pandemic, Haley said that there’s been a large decrease in visitors to the park. That said, the park has both a drive-through and walk-through over 16-acres that provides a good opportunity for social distancing, and she hopes the park will continue to be an outlet for visitors.
   “Post-pandemic, I see things being similar as they are currently. We will downsize a little to make walkways in the gift shop wider and open space up a little more. I believe people will continue to follow the guidelines in place by the CDC with masks and respecting social distancing,” she attested. “Welcome to the new norm. The upside of it all is seeing people helping each other and working together to support each other.”

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