Trending merchandise at zoo and museum gift stores adapt with the attraction’s exhibits and customer needs.

Jan. 17, 2024

Merchandise available at zoo and museum gift shops are always changing depending on the season or the coming attraction, but there are also tried-and-true categories that sell well no matter the time of year. And trends continue to emerge.

In the second of this three-part series, which will run in subsequent issues of Souvenirs, Gifts & Novelties, SGN Editorial Director Kristin Ely spoke Joy Love, vice president of merchandising and warehouse operations, San Diego Wildlife Zoo Alliance and Maureen Ryan, Museum Store Manager, Albuquerque Museum Foundation, about the various operational aspects of managing a gift shop that supports an attraction.

Kristin Ely (KE): Please describe the range of merchandise you carry in your store and which categories of gifts and souvenirs are driving your business?

Joy Love, San Diego Wildlife Zoo Alliance (JL):
We like to believe we’ve got something for everyone, and we separate our buying responsibilities across three different segments. We’ve got kids, which includes everything related to kids: plush, toys, apparel, hats et cetera. We have categories for adults, which includes apparel, hats and accessories, and then we have home merchandise which is probably our biggest cross section. It includes anything from souvenirs, housewares, consumables, home decor, books and media.

In terms of what drives our business the kids’ categories are the most significant, so plush, toys and kids’ apparel are extremely important to us. Our largest customer base tends to be adults buying for their kids.

Maureen Ryan, Albuquerque Museum Store (MR): Generally speaking, jewelry is our No. 1 category. Books are our No. 2 seller. Then it all depends based on the exhibition schedule whether it’s going to be apparel, gifts or home decor. It is always different, but it gets to our bottom line somehow. It’s really fun. It keeps us on our toes, it keeps the merchandise fresh and it works out great. When we are changing exhibitions, the whole front of the store is just totally different for the next one and that’s a huge important factor to me.

Colorful Lion is now a mainstay for the San Diego Zoo, and a recent collaboration with Reyn Spooner (top right) has been a hit.

It is tricky because we do a big reveal so everything is behind the scenes. We are getting it all ready and then it is time for it to come out. We are closed on Mondays so the Monday before the exhibition opens is when I am changing the window of the store. I’ll get my plan going and then a couple staff members will fill in the merchandise and we’ll put it all together so when the members come in for the opening on Friday, it is a brand new store.

Because we have about a month transition period, I also have to be clever enough to take merchandise that’s part of our core and theme it in some way that makes sense to the people coming in because you can’t have it look like an empty store. Hopefully we’ve had a good exhibition and most of that merchandise has sold or whatever few pieces are left go on a sale table, and it’s just the magic of retail making it all work and making it look new and fresh when you are doing a big change out. It’s tricky but fun.

KE: What particular styles tend to be popular with clientele?

JL: We have three signature designs that we have created full storefronts for. We’ve got Gorilla Shadow, which is like a silverback gorilla, and we do everything from apparel to accessories to hats and socks. We’ve got Colorful Lion who was created for us during our centennial, which was in 2016, but he was so popular. He is a lionhead with a colorful mane. We’ve created an entire line around him, most recently, a custom plush that has been really popular. Our third signature is not necessarily a thing that is exclusive to us, but it is “Save the chubby unicorns” with a rhino silhouette. It’s been a main staple for us for the past five years.

We also do really well with the seasonal merchandise during the holidays and with the butterfly merchandise that we carry every spring. We also carry eco-friendly, sustainable products. Our customers aren’t necessarily all the way there yet, but we are just going in that direction, especially in our plush department and apparel department and really encouraging our guests to think that way.

Colorful Lion is now a mainstay for the San Diego Zoo, and a recent collaboration with Reyn Spooner (top right) has been a hit.

People who are coming to New Mexico know about Native American jewelry. While we carry some Native American-specific jewelry, it’s primarily silver jewelry that we carry. We also have turquoise. In the cash wrap area is where our better, higher-priced jewelry is. It includes local, hand-made and some one-of-a-kind pieces, all beautiful stuff. Then we have a couple of tables that are less expensive and people can get their hands-on experience. Because we have so many jewelry manufacturers, we can give you a beautiful southwestern earring for $9.95.

We try to have a lot of contemporary products as well. Several of the local clothing retailers have gone out of business, so I try to have coats in the winter and beautiful scarves and handbags. Not all museums have that, and it’s really been a great category for us.

KE: Are there tried-and-true products that sell well year after year? What are they?

JL: In addition to the three signature things I described, we’ve got this spray fan bottle. It’s a contraption filled with water and you turn it on like a fan, and during hot days, everyone has to have one. We’ve got ones with all different kinds of animal heads that kids love. We also have a safari pack, which is a backpack that comes with a water bottle, and we’ve recently changed it from a plastic water bottle to a reusable double-walled water bottle. The third [trending item] changes. Right now it is a face mask. It has been a sunscreen or a lip balm. Those are some cute items that perform well year after year.

MR: We have a destination down the street from us called Los Poblanos. It is a beautiful place to stay. They also make lavender products. Lavender grows very well in New Mexico. It doesn’t need a lot of water. The founder developed this hand salve, and it grew from there. Now they have lotions and bug spray, and we’re fortunate enough to carry it in our store.

Albuquerque Museum Store items have a Southwest flair.

The other thing that we have is our greeting cards and postcards from our permanent collection. That’s been a mainstay. Last year, we acquired an 18th-century granary from Spain. It was quite the undertaking with these big semi trucks coming with big boulders that were all numbered, and they put it up in our sculpture garden. Now we sell photographs of that. We like to show off our Spanish roots at the museum, so that has been a neat thing.

KE: What emerging product trends are you seeing and what factors are contributing to them?

Axolotls have been huge for us for about a year now. We’ve had great success with that. Recently, it’s been capybaras. Capybaras are the world’s largest rodent, and the zoo just had four babies.

And for us, collaborations. We’ve recently taken on some collaborations with various brands and vendors.

We recently did a Hawaiian shirt with Reyn Spooner and then we did plush featuring the art of Brazilian artist Romero Britto.

Every year for us we are also expanding our wearables: our hats our gloves our ballcaps — things like that. A lot of times people come to New Mexico and they think it’s the desert so it must be hot. It’s not necessarily hot in December. They sometimes need a layer or two.

Part III of Souvenir, Gifts & Novelties’ Zoo and Museum Q&A will be available in the March/April 2024 issue, and cover challenges and opportunities facing brick-and-mortar retailers.