The Gateway Arch in St. Louis draws tourists from all over who ride the National Park Service’s riverboats and celebrate their time with a souvenir from the Riverboat Gift Shop.

July 3, 2024

To say our view is iconic is an understatement, says Amber Barbeau, director of riverboats at the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.

The National Park Service monument is a nod to the Midwest’s pioneering spirit, and it attracts guests from across the country, along with international travelers who marvel at the memorial and take in outdoor experiences such as riverfront cruises, museum excursions, tram rides to the top and even watch a documentary that offers a historical perspective.

On property, The Arch offers three gift shop experiences. One of them is the Riverboat Gift Shop where visitors can buy tickets for a riverfront cruise and peruse a curated selection of Arch-, St. Louis- and riverboat-themed mementos.

Barbeau came on board three years ago, but the riverboats have been trolling up and down the Mississippi River since 1964, originally to watch the construction of The Arch.

The riverboats are about the size of a small bedroom, she says. After a cruise, the Riverboat Gift Shop provides enticing local-flair souvenirs that commemorate the experience.

“We get to interact with people from all over the world — The Arch is an amazing place,” says Barbeau, relating a story a colleague shared about a tourist who stood in front of the memorial and shed tears. He was from South Africa. The man told her, “This is the most beautiful view I have ever seen.”

Delivering on demand

Trend intel plays into buying and stocking relevant inventory at the Riverboat Gift Shop.

Fast-selling Stanley dupes bearing a logo of The Arch are fast sellers.
Photos: Brea Youngblood

“For instance, we held off on the Stanley dupe thing and gave in this year because countless times, people were asking for them and willing to pay,” says Barbeau. “Guests don’t just want a $5 magnet. They also want a $40 branded cup that is sustainable.”

She says the fast-selling dupes sport a logo of The Arch.

Trendspotting goes beyond tracking Instagram and is much more personal for Riverboat Gift Shop. “We meet with our wholesale suppliers in person as much as we can and we pay close attention to the shows and newsletters to stay up on products so we can keep our inventory fresh,” Barbeau says.

Barbeau trains the gift shop team to ask guests about their interests and to pay close attention to what customers purchase.

“We really strive to offer something for everyone,” Barbeau adds, though staying to the national park, Arch, St. Louis and riverboat themes are an essential aspect of the shop’s identity. “We stay true to that,” she says.

Customers range from young children to grandparents and everyone in between. “We also get conventions in town, so we can host groups on our private riverboat charters. Some of our guests are professionals who are shopping here to take something back home because they enjoyed their boat experience,” says Barbeau.

Sometimes, the items customers gravitate toward surprise Barbeau. For instance, snow globes are “strangely popular,” she says. And they sell year-round. “People love them!”

True to the theme

While Barbeau likes to offer something for everyone, the shop has limited space with 30-by-30 square feet of room, so she maximizes wall displays, buys thoughtfully by focusing on what’s in demand, and relies on a storage room to stow away extra inventory.

Winter is prime buying time when she replenishes the store room, resets the gift shop and prepares for the season in spring. Smaller orders and local vendor replenishment occurs periodically as products move from shelves.

Merchandise primarily highlights three key themes: The Arch, St. Louis and riverboats.

“The benefit of local vendors is I can say, ‘I’d love to order 250 of these, but can we get just 50 of them now?’” says Barbeau. “They can get us the products sooner and it supports their practice as well.”

With small-batch buying during COVID, Barbeau says the shop expanded its selection of local products.

Artists keep products relevant by branding items with images of The Arch, the site’s logo or name-drop pieces highlighting St. Louis or the National Park Service.

In fact, a set of tile coasters sold in mix-and-match sets or individually depict these characteristically “STL” experiences.

Riverboat Gift Shop also partners with local designers who create themed apparel — a draw for out-of-towners who want to take home a wearable souvenir that has a story behind it.

“Anything National Park Service related is incredibly popular,” adds Barbeau. “People have a great love for the national parks, whether it be a puzzle, postcard set or mug. We also offer national park stickers and passport books that do really well.”

Leveraging the riverfront

Engaging guests and contributing to a memorable visit to the national park is an important role team members carry out at Riverboat Gift Shop.

Other popular products include snow globes.

Just as Barbeau is always seeking ways to improve customer service, she’s equally focused on offering new guest experiences that encourage lingering by the riverboats for longer.

This year, the Riverboat Gift Shop introduced an interactive mining activity on the dock. The shop partnered with a vendor who built a retail display cart for the activity and created custom bags to take home the mining gemstones.

After the first week with the mining attraction, Barbeau says there was “such a fun demand.” She adds that customers of all ages are participating in the attraction.

Barbeau says, “I think the value of having an activity within a gift shop is undersold, and this is proving to be a really great way to add to the riverboat cruises.”