Best-Sellers for Wild Sales
Toys and Plush at Zoos, Aquariums and Museums

Toys and plush are often a top-selling category at zoo, aquarium, and museum gift shops. For this article, staff members at these attractions described their best-selling toys and plush, and suggested tips to make sales the best they can be.

At the Aquarium of Boise in Boise, Idaho, Gift Shop Manager Lyla Workman explained that because her location is not a tourist town, her focus is appealing on local visitors, and those visitors are primarily children. “Because we have a large sting ray exhibit that we promote, the plush sting rays do very well. Plush snakes are also big sellers for us. We have a mermaid come in on Friday’s, so our mermaid plush and plastic both sell well.” Workman asserted that “One of the things we do to enhance sales is to focus on items in certain price ranges. The plastic items work for people who want to spend under $10, and plush is a higher-end item.” Along with enticing price points, Workman uses social media, suggestive selling, and creative displays to boost sales. “We change our displays every few weeks to keep things fresh. Moving items around the store just helps draw the eye to new objects. There are always going to be some places in the store that people just don’t see as well, so keeping the items flowing around the store is important.”

In Bend, Ore. at The High Desert Museum, which includes both museum and zoo exhibits, Gift Store Manager and Buyer Julie Sturges reported that her best-selling plush figures represent river otters. “That’s because of our location, we have these animals here at the zoo. We try to carry plush that corresponds to the animals we have here. When it comes to toys, the most popular items are science-related, as well as crystals and rocks. We also do well with old-fashioned toys such as a hoop game that children play outside. It’s the same game they would have played in the 1800s. Again, these items do well for us because they are associated with our exhibits.” Sturges added that selling more of these items primarily depends on display. “We keep all of our displays of these types of items arranged on one side of the store,” she said. “Keeping them in a children’s area directs attention to them. If an item is directly related to an exhibit, we might also place it in the front window.” Sturges changes her displays every two months, and has a general seasonal focus. “We say winter in our displays rather than Christmas, for example.”

Across the country at the Port Discovery Children’s Museum in Baltimore, Md., Gift Shop Assistant Director Shanika Long focuses on small items that appeal to school groups, such as Slime products which are very popular and inexpensive. Kinetic Sand and Mad Mattr also do well. “Basically our top sellers are anything that allows physical stimulation for children, using their hands.” When it comes to plush, mermaids do well at this location. “And if children are under the age of six, they want Mash’Ems,” she said. Mash’Ems mystery surprise boxes are especially popular, featuring a concealed mystery item relating to popular figures such as Paw Patrol or Care Bear characters that can be squished and stretched.” To sell more of these items, Long relies on having a wide range of prices to fit customer needs, and smart displays. “We need to have displays that are very present, because we have smaller shoppers, children doing the shopping. So nothing is out of reach, and we make sure our plush and toys are at a certain level, so they can see, touch, and hold an item.” Long also noted that displays are arranged to create “a flow of items with a similar subject, whether that is Mickey Mouse or dolphins. We’re competing with online buying resources, so we have to make sure our displays are worth the customer getting in there and shopping. You have to make displays appealing to the person buying, which in our case is usually a child.”

At The Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk, Conn., Gift Shop Supervisor John Augustin described his best-selling plush animals as harbor seals, sharks, and turtles. “Those our main attractions at this aquarium, and having them here drives sales in plush,” he explained. “In toys, Octonauts are the most popular, and those sales are driven by the television program they are based on.” Augustin said his store uses special selling deals to lift sales of these items. “As an example, we have deals with two plush animals for $30, when normally single plush figures are $20 each.” The shop also demonstrates many of its products. “People are more attracted to items if they are out there being played with, and they are more likely to buy it. Just put it out there for kids and adults to see an item in action, and they are much more interested in it.” Additionally, the store relies on seasonal displays that are frequently changed to keep things “fresh and eye catching.”

In Millbrook, N.Y., at the Trevor Zoo, Zoo Director Alan Tousignant, said that “Like all zoos, the plush animals we have in the collection that seem to grab the most interest are those that we have in our exhibits. So, red pandas do very well for us, as they’re a featured animal here.” He added that plush snakes also do well, though he doesn’t find a correlation between them and enthusiasm for the animals he exhibits. “In the toy category, because we are a very new gift shop – we opened up just this past summer, we are slowly developing our product line. For now, we do well with environmentally-conscious toys such as toy tractors and trucks made from corn-based material. They have the feel of plastic, but they are compostable over time.” Tousignant stated that his entire store is aimed at being as sustainable and green as possible in its product selection. “That can be a real challenge in the plush world, as the bulk of them are made in China.” To sell more items, the 424-square-foot shop relies on what Tousignant terms low-key conversations with parents and children. “Our goal here is not to make a great deal of money, it is about trying to demonstrate there can be a sustainably focused store that can still be fun for everyone.”

At the Cleveland Museum of Art, Director of Auxiliary Services Catherine Surratt, calls the Buddha Board her best-selling toy by far. “You draw on it with water, using a brush. When it dries, you can draw something else. It keeps kids busy. To sell more of them, we have them out on display so that people can try it and see what it is.” Surratt attested that “As this is an art museum, it fits well in our store. It gives people the opportunity to create their own art, and if they don’t like it, it goes away and they simply start over.” When it comes to plush, a medium sized “Bashful Bunny” is a top-seller. “We sell a coordinating book with that as well as very soft puppies and owls that have their own books. These plush items are soft and cuddly and together with the books, they make a great gift item.”

To sell more of these items in her 3200-square-foot shop, display is key. “We have a section of our store that is specifically dedicated to children. We have nesting tables throughout the store and we only use the low ones with little stools in that part of the store. That way children and parents can play with the toys and plush. Keeping things hands-on really makes a big difference in the sales of our toys, which is one of our top five sales categories,” she explains. “As any parent knows, it’s hard to get something out of your child’s hands once they’re holding a toy, so we do try to get their hands on them.”

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