Aquarium gift shops strive to merchandise their stores with products that make a connection between guests and the venue’s residents.

July 3, 2024

Those who visit an aquarium regularly may become familiar with the penguins putting on a show, or the electric eel who taunts passersby with his jagged jaws perched half open. Once done watching marine life, guests enjoy browsing a gift shop.

Although there are certain staples and must-haves in an aquatic merchandise lineup, there is nothing stopping venues from adding an element of surprise to the list of usual merchandise suspects.

From food to fashion

At the North Carolina Aquariums’ Roanoke Island location, for instance, marine life is depicted on T-shirts, glasses and mugs, bags, socks, jewelry, pins, stickers, books and plush. Amanda Cross, the shop’s manager, says plush is a bestselling souvenir for the store.

While Fiesta, The Petting Zoo and K&M International all have a hand in delighting the smallest visitors, The Spicy Shark hot sauces capture the attention of adults. Ranging in heat by fin number, with six fins being the hottest, 13 different flavors satisfy a variety of palettes from hot and spicy to fruity and sweet.

Towers of jewelry beckon those with a more refined eye for ocean treasures while cases at the cash wrap hold some of the more expensive pieces. World End Imports, Phillips, Quality Gold, RS Covenant’s Products, White Light, V&L Craft, Shark Crafts and Fahlo all have a place in the inventory at the Roanoke Island gift shop.

Calling all custom souvenirs

While plush and toys reign supreme at the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans, General Manager Randy Dickson says quality sets the aquarium apart from the multitude of souvenir shops that line the French Quarter.

Seymour Marine Discovery Center has Create Your Own Deep Blue Seascape activities.

“The quality of our plush and our T-shirts is a lot better from everything else in the French Quarter,” he asserts. “I firmly believe that our items are such high quality because our buyers do their due diligence to make sure people get a really good product.”

Beyond the plush from Wild Republic, Fiesta and K&M that lines the shelves, Dickson says another dynamic plays into their locale and what’s popular — tourism.

Being a tourist destination has its perks, he notes. Whether a T-shirt, hat, shot glass, magnet or keychain, anything with “New Orleans” or “Audubon Aquarium” sells particularly well.

“I’ve worked in a lot of different places, and it doesn’t matter what we put on that gift shop floor, as long as people can see it, they buy it. It’s unbelievable,” Dickson marvels. “It’s a wild location.”

He notes that about 80% of visitors are tourists while the remainder are locals.

Sourcing local talent

Emily Casaretto, visitor experience and gift shop manager at the Seymour Marine Science Discovery Center on the University of California’s Santa Cruz campus, agrees that name drop and customization have made a difference in her bottom line.

“When you take the time to put your name on a product, people really love it, because it’s something that they can’t find at other places. So pretty much everything that I’ve decided to do a custom version of is a success,” she points out. “Because we’re such a small organization, I think, ‘Who’s going to want something with our name on it?’ but people really do love it.”

Outside of ordering plush from Wild Republic and books from Ingram Publishing, Casaretto also works to carry items that promote an educational experience, such as field identification guides and educational activity books for children.

Audubon Aquarium has a variety of plush from Wild Republic, Fiesta, K&M International and others.

To maintain the pendulum between affordability and variety, Casaretto looks to local artists to harvest their creative talent. A nearby husband-and-wife team called Big Sur Handworks is Casaretto’s go-to for most apparel. Meanwhile, another local makes earrings out of abalone shells.

“It’s not a challenge for me to find people that are making really incredible artwork with an ocean theme. And I like to support them as much as I can,” she explains.

Use your resources

And since you can’t buy what you can’t see, visibility can’t be overstated — especially in a small space, Casaretto notes. Since taking over the small store in 2019 when the original shop manager retired, she says she’s retained some inventory while putting her own stamp on what she feels is important.

“I had heard from some people in the past that sometimes it felt like it was cluttered,” she admits. “So, I’m trying to make it feel full, but not feel like the walls are closing in.”

Meanwhile, Cross is convinced a renovation project not only breathed new life into the space, but brought in the sales.

“They added a new entrance where we have our shark habitat; it used to be a wall and now that’s where people can come in,” Cross notes. “And then we have our other exit that they can go out. It was a complete facelift.”

Guests are greeted by a two-toned wood floor design that leads them around the store to different pockets that are accentuated by blue, yellow, purple and green walls, depending on which “room” you’re in.

Enchanting fixtures like the shark, a turtle with his flippers spread wide and a cheerful sailboat confirm to guests that they are welcome to stay and browse.

In New Orleans, a renovation that nearly doubled the footprint of the gift shop and turned it into an exit shop was a game changer. The facelift was a part of a $41 million project that changed the flow of the entire building.

Dickson says no matter how one chooses to get customers through the door, combining good customer service with an awe-inspiring environment is a surefire recipe for success. He adds a positive attitude and enjoying the experience as much as the guests is sure to be contagious.

“It’s a happy place to work,” he says. “You get to see all these cool animals that you don’t get to see in your mundane, everyday life. It’s really hard to have a bad day at an aquarium.”