Tried-and-true sellers make these coastal souvenir stores must-stops in their beach towns year after year.

Jan. 30, 2024

In any seaside shop, an owner or buyer can name their bestselling souvenir.

In Santa Monica, it’s the magnet.

“We found out that people love magnets,” says Katherine Vasquez, retail manager and buyer for Premier Parks LLC, which operates Pacific Park amusement park and the Pier Gear gift shop on the Santa Monica Pier in California. “They come from all over the world and take it home as a souvenir.”

Among the bestselling magnets is one that’s custom made with iconic images of the Ferris wheel, the Santa Monica arch, and the Route 66 sign at the end of the pier.

Not only is there a wall front and center within the store dedicated to the small magnetic mementos, but there is another unit elsewhere on the boardwalk called The Magnet Wall that hopes to catch the attention of avid collectors.

Vasquez believes it’s the portability that make them so popular for travelers.

“I think after the pandemic, we saw a shift,” she explains. “Now when people travel on an airplane they have to pay extra for luggage, so they want to carry smaller stuff, so magnets definitely do well.”

A wearable winner

In Gulf Shores, Alabama, Owner Andrea Weir doesn’t hesitate to name her No. 1 seller at Island Outfitters.
“T-shirts are the number-one-selling item in the whole store,” she declares without a second thought. “And it has been for decades. As long as I’ve been in the business.”

At left, Souvenirs with images of the Santa Monica Pier are unique to the Pier Gear Gift Shop. Above, displays on wheels make them a breeze to move around.
Photos: Jessica Militello

As a third-generation souvenir store owner, Weir’s experience in the industry spans decades. Her grandmother, Josephine Weir Nittolo, began as the cafe owner of Jo’s Lunchbox, cooking fishermen’s catch and other food, before shifting to retail and introducing locals to Souvenir City in 1956 — before the town of Gulf Shores was even established. Today, Weir is proud to be one of the few locally owned companies in the town where her family is known as one of the founding families.

In 2008, Weir took all of her industry know-how and poured it into an 18,000-square-foot building with a pale yellow and coastal blue facade that stands a block from the sugar-white beaches; a totem-pole sign beckons beach goers to stop in and have a look around.

Once inside, guests can wander through shelves filled with beach souvenirs such as beach towels, chairs, shoes, swimsuits, floaties, sunglasses, ashtrays, picture frames, shot glasses, coffee cups, snow globes, wind chimes and jewelry. If that’s not enough, they can peruse the racks of hoodies, jackets and sweatpants before finding the perfect T-shirt adorned with pineapples, palm trees, sharks, crabs, turtles, mermaids, hammocks or cocktails – with most also including a salute to their Gulf Shores locale.

Among those that put a smile on the faces of tourists and visitors are tie-dyed T-shirts – a fad that Weir notes is cyclical in popularity that ebbs and flows when new generations discover it.

And while the T-shirt has never wavered as a favorite, there are others that hold a special place and even call guests back for a second visit, maybe even a year or more later.

“We make a lot of fudge in our own kitchen on site here, so a lot of people come back remembering the fudge, craving the fudge, buying the fudge,” Weir says. “I tend to forget about that.”

Fortunately for her, visitors don’t forget the unique flavors the store churns out, such as peanut butter chocolate, Almond Joy, strawberry daiquiri, chocolate walnut, chocolate pomegranate and pumpkin walnut pecan caramel. Among the favorites for Weir is the store’s bushwhacker flavor, she notes with a laugh.

“We change our flavors a lot,” she says. “Maybe even every week. And there’s all kinds of additives that we put in it. We use real butter and make it in our own kitchen.”

A flavorful addition

In Virginia Beach, fudge also ranks among customers’ favorites at the Pier Gift Shop in Virginia Beach, Virginia, but it has yet to nudge out T-shirts at the top spot. However, Owner Delores Rogers notes it has been a wonderful addition that breathed life into her product lineup when sales hit a slump 12 to 15 years ago.

T-shirts reign supreme at Island Outfitters in Gulf Shores, Alabama.
Photos: Terry Mikloucich

“One of my vendors said, ‘Well, my uncle sells Calico [Cottage] fudge and he does very well with it. It’s not a huge investment and the profit margin is great,’” she explains. “We sell a lot of fudge now. People sometimes come in and they just buy fudge. But it brings a lot more people into the store because after all these years, people know that we have this wonderful fudge.”

Today, chocolate peanut butter is the favorite among customers in a pool of 12 to choose from — all lovingly made by one employee.

“I sell a lot of fudge, but I don’t make any of it,” Rogers admits.

That’s the job of Micki Sheppard. She inherited the role from twins Peggy and Patty Hines after they were unable to continue for health reasons and due to the physical demands of standing for long periods of time over the kettles that simmer the cherished concoctions to perfection. While Patty has retired from the store, Peggy remains one of eight loyal employees of the gift shop.

When all else fails, most can rely on Mother Nature to compel customers to buy a souvenir they didn’t know they needed. Rogers notes sweatshirts occasionally become the bestseller when the seasons change and the weather turns colder.

“People come to the beach and they think it’s going to be warm,” she says. “A lot of people think it’s warm year-round here, which it isn’t.”

Across the country in Santa Monica, Vasquez notes a similar experience.

We do carry a lot of [sweatshirts] because it does get a little bit cooler here on the coast than inland,” she points out. “People think that it’s always nice and warm because it’s Santa Monica or California, but it’s not always like that.”

A failsafe formula

With most vendors selling magnets and T-shirts, how does one choose the perfect selection for their store? Vasquez believes it comes down to relationships and says the years together in the industry make a difference. When it comes to vendors, Vasquez refers to them as her “partners.”

T-shirts reign supreme at Island Outfitters in Gulf Shores, Alabama.

“I started this maybe 18 years ago, so the vendors I put on my list or the people that we do business with are people who have worked in this industry for a long time,” she says. “They’re people that we can trust. Over the years you see a lot of stuff changing, so the ongoing relationships are important.”

When it comes to top vendors at Island Outfitters, Weir notes, she remains loyal to the vendors that have been doing business with her family since her grandmother began. She says the relationships are sacred for more than one reason.

“Some of my vendors ship me merchandise in January, February and I don’t have to pay for it until July because they’re vendors that I’ve been doing business with for that long,” she explains. “My parents did business with them, and my grandmother did business with their grandparents so it’s a generational thing. It’s important for me to have a vendor that’s been around a long time, that knows what they’re doing and that has a good product.”

The bottom line is when it comes down to selecting souvenirs, trust your gut, your numbers and your vendors.

After all these years, Vasquez still relies on basic retail formulas to sell products and find merchandise that appeals to Pier Gear visitors. She says working with what you have and making it pop is all you need to turn a “no” into a “whoa.”

“People are visual buyers. They’re drawn to something that catches their eye,” she explains. “So keep your displays full and looking nice.”