Implement these strategies to capture Old West vibes in your retail shop.

July 3, 2024

More than a century and a half ago, hundreds of thousands of treasure seekers headed west in hopes of striking gold or other fortune in the great American frontier. Gold mining boomtowns popped up across ranges and prairies of the Old West, and then vanished — leaving behind ramshackle remnants of ghost towns in their wake.

Refusing to leave this rich history in the dust like tumbleweeds, Old West-themed retail shops are using creative merchandising strategies and peculiar products to draw in shoppers. From the southern tip of Nevada, through the great Rocky Mountains, to the rolling hills of South Dakota, western-themed gift shop owners share their strategies for capturing Old West vibes inside their retail stores.

Authentically western

From the blocky, burly fonts carved into rustic store signs to the rugged decor adorning the product displays inside, every detail matters in western-themed retail. First impressions set the stage for a themed shopping experience — starting with the building itself, down to its architectural details.

A moonshine box is sure to stand out at displays at Ghost Town Museum as well as old wooden signage.

About 40 minutes south of Las Vegas, you’ll see unmistakably western false-front facades emblazoned with a distinctively stocky western-style font announcing your arrival at the Pioneer Saloon and Goodsprings General Store. In fact, the historic storefront is so iconic that it’s been featured in several films, TV shows, music videos, and even the video game, Fallout: New Vegas and the card game, Magic the Gathering: Fallout Commander.

Whether young gamers come to walk through their favorite fictional world IRL or international tourists travel to see a quintessential Old West saloon, visitors expect these souvenir shops to look authentic.

“The Goodsprings General Store and the Pioneer Saloon are both historical landmarks in Nevada because of the fact that the actual structures have survived 111 years,” says Stephen Staats, better known as Old Man Liver, who has owned both businesses since 2021. “We need to pay homage to our history as an old Wild West saloon, and tourists love it because it looks like the Old West style bar that they expect.”

Built in 1913, the general store still sports its original stamped tin ceiling, while a cherrywood bar from the 1800s adds old-world charm to the saloon. Staats posts signs throughout both buildings to educate visitors about the property’s rich history — explaining, for example, the bullet holes near the saloon door where a cheating poker patron was shot down in 1915, and the burn marks on the bar from Clark Gable’s cigarettes in 1942 as he anxiously awaited news from the search party who found his wife, actress Carole Lombard, in the wreckage of a nearby plane crash.

Similarly, Kathy Harris pulls historic artifacts from the Ghost Town Museum into her retail displays to add Old West allure. Established by her grandmother in 1954, the museum is housed inside a historic 1899 stone structure in Colorado Springs. It features a “full-size ghost town,” complete with buildings, equipment and relics from the turn of the century — which Harris borrows to add antique charm to the store.

“I really wanted [the souvenir store] to reflect the times,” she says, “so I bring artifacts out from the museum to incorporate into the store. For example, I have an old one-person carriage that serves as a display for food products. It sits right in the middle of the store, so you see it as soon as you walk in. It’s a cool old piece, and it carries the theme through the store.”

Likewise, she incorporates antique top hats into her display of modern caps, arranges old jugs and tins on the shelves along the ceiling, and places shiny jewelry cases on top of weathered wooden crates and timeworn oak tables that “add to the ambiance,” she says. Stone walls and exposed hewn timbers lend a rugged feel to the gift shop, creating a cozy frontier atmosphere. “We’ve established the feel of the store so when you walk in, you know this isn’t just a tourist shop,’” Harris says.

Iconic keepsakes

Merchandise must support the frontier theme, too, by sticking to rustic motifs and materials. Inside the 14-sided barn that houses the gift shop at 1880 Town, a South Dakota village of more than 30 authentically furnished turn-of-the- century buildings, an assortment of souvenirs and other gifts reflect the symbols of frontier life.

The Pioneer Saloon attracts customers with its old western bar look.

The kids’ section, for example, showcases toy guns, holsters, slingshots, and bows and arrows, while plush stuffies and T-shirts feature regional wildlife like longhorn steers, buffalo, coyotes, wolves and horses. Jewelry and souvenirs made from buffalo nickels, bone, stone, crystals and even porcupine quills offer authentic mementos of the Old West.

“People want a little piece of it to take with them — anything that depicts the West,” says Karen Smith, who has worked at 1880 Town for 35 years. “We’ve tried selling stuff that doesn’t depict the West, and it doesn’t work.”

Southwestern decor, with its bold geometric patterns and desert-inspired lizards and cacti, doesn’t sell as well at 1880 Town as western souvenirs that channel cowboy vibes, she says. From mugs and glassware to apparel, magnets, postcards, coasters and keychains, visitors are looking for on-theme keepsakes to remember their western adventures by. Shoppers often opt for souvenirs featuring local wildlife and landmarks, or simply the name of the location.

Customers “love the custom stuff that highlights the Ghost Town Museum,” Harris says. “In the last few years, I’ve figured out that people really wanted custom [merchandise that says], ‘I went to Ghost Town,’ so we do quite a bit of that.” For example, T-shirts featuring cowboy boots or mountain landscapes get localized with the Ghost Town Museum logo, the Colorado Springs name or just “Colorado.”

Conversely, Old Man Liver doesn’t want his merchandise to ride the coattails of nearby Las Vegas, because his guests drive 30 miles outside the city specifically to visit the saloon.

“Most of the time, anywhere in southern Nevada, you’re buying caps that say Las Vegas, but we’re proud of our little 200-person town of Goodsprings. We even sell caps with our zip code, 89019, and people love them because it’s something different than what they’re used to on the Strip,” he says. “We are small-town rural, and we celebrate that; and people get into the spirit of that with the souvenirs.”

Uniquely local novelties

Beyond the standard western-themed souvenirs, the biggest draws at ghost town gift shops are quirky products and local goods that customers can’t find anywhere else.

At the Ghost Town Museum Gift Shop, for example, “I carry a lot of different things that my competitors don’t carry — just odd little things,” Harris says. “I have these little music machines called hurdy-gurdies that you hand-crank. It’s probably one of our best-selling items.”

The Pioneer Saloon attracts customers with its old western bar look.

Likewise, Old Man Liver features plenty of unique oddities inside the Goodsprings General Store. Vegas Voodoo, the retail business he founded in 2001, has its own section within the general store showcasing good luck charms, crystals, candles, mojo bags, and spell kits (once featured by Shark Tank’s Barbara Corcoran on the Today Show) — which are popular with superstitious gamblers headed to Vegas.

The General Store also sells Nuka Cola drinks, made popular by the Fallout game, and classic western beverages like sarsaparilla. Staats even added a “soda jerk station” that serves old-fashioned malts, shakes, and floats, and the General Store stocks an assortment of nostalgic candy that’s popular with all ages.

“People are looking for something different and unique,” says Staats, who also sells other handmade and farm-raised products from the area. “Anything local we can [carry], whether it’s crystals or grass-fed beef, we want to support local crafters and farmers and give people something different that they can’t get anywhere else.”

After all, the thrill of uncovering rare and unusual treasures is what makes the Old West so exciting; it’s what lured prospectors across uncharted territory centuries ago, and what still draws visitors of all ages today.