Best-Selling Name-Dropped Gifts and Souvenirs at Zoos and Aquariums

By Sara Karnish

When it comes to gifts and souvenirs at venues like zoos and aquariums, name-dropped items are among the consistently strong sellers. From clothing to keychains, plush toys to porcelain figurines, consumers of all ages are drawn to items bearing the name of the venue. It’s a simple way for visitors to purchase a tangible memory of a special visit. “We take people’s memories from the zoo and build them into something you can take home,” said Jamie Sheard, guest services manager at Elmwood Park Zoo in Norristown, Pa. She added there is almost always overlap in the zoo’s events and what items are selling well in their 1,400-square-foot gift shop. “We like to feature items that we can really connect to the guest experience,” she added.

A wall of T-shirts at the Akron Zoo. “Display so the name-drop is visible, but other than that …make it look good and shoppable,” the gift store manager advised.

Visitors intentionally seek out name-dropped items, but not every item works in this category. “We try to name-drop as much as possible,” said Joan Hummel, gift shop manager at Akron Zoo in Akron, Ohio. “If it is visually appealing to name-drop an item, we take a look at it. Vendors can help, too—creating proofs for you to review so it’s easy to visualize how a finished item will look.” Hummel added that the best-selling name-dropped items in the 3,600-square-foot retail shop are “apparel and drinkware. We follow the trends and buy what will sell. Out of Hand Graphics is one of our apparel vendors; they do a great job with designs. Both apparel and drinkware lend themselves to great displays with the graphic qualities.” Over the past year, COVID-related items such as masks and other PPE were strong competitors with the longtime tried-and-true best-sellers like apparel, magnets, and keychains. Anita Coogan, ZOOfari Outpost Gift Shop Manager at Central Florida Zoo and Botanical Gardens in Sanford, Fla., said, “At this time, our top-selling gifts are our custom Central Florida Zoo masks, stress toys, plush animals wearing Central Florida Zoo vests, and educational gifts like books, gemstones with educational cards, and puzzles. ” She added, “Magnets, postcards, shot glasses, mugs, and T-shirts are still highly desired amongst guests of different ages.”

Name-dropped bottles in neon colors from the inventory at the Akron Zoo in Ohio. Name-dropped drinkware is best-selling for the store.

Christina Rogato, director of operations at Electric City Aquarium and Reptile Den in Scranton, Pa., said their team does their best to add even more personalization to name-dropped items. “We sell tons of water and drip timers that are name-dropped, as well as magnets. I think magnets really appeal to everyone, and we have been focusing on using photos of our own animals instead of stock images. The timers are an affordable option that is not just another stuffed animal.”
Sheard said their best-sellers may change slightly from one season to the next, but they almost always reflect current zoo exhibits and special events. “Our top-selling name-dropped gift are our plush animals by Wild Republic wearing a hoodie embroidered with the zoo’s name,” she explained. “And the Zoo Brew Food Stand and Bar—that’s been one of our great successes, and something for the adults. It’s a bar inside the zoo, and they sell their own T-shirts which sell very well. And finally, we have a large cast-iron arch at the entrance to the zoo which everyone has to walk through to get in, and anything we put that arch on sells well. We get hand-carved wooden ornaments featuring the arch, and they are big sellers during the holiday season. In the warmer months, we have regular giraffe feedings [which visitors can watch], and we see such a spike in the giraffe plush.”

Plush with name-dropped vests are best-sellers for the Central Florida Zoo and Botanical Gardens store.

When it comes to displays and merchandising, zoo and aquarium retailers say maximizing available space is essential. These venues often feature kiosks or small pop-up shops carrying a limited selection of inventory throughout the property as an extension of the main shop. “Our shop is 700 square feet,” Coogan explained. “It’s a small but organized gift shop. The team keeps things compartmentalized to make it easy for our guests to go in and out.” She added, “We categorize [items] throughout the store. If a guest asks for a specific item, we point in the direction of where they can find it. This also helps with social distancing. Smaller displays are better than large displays—an example of a smaller display would be one by the checkout counter.” Sheard added location and visibility are also key for merchandising. “We try to feature the name-dropped items at prime spots in the store. We have a table set up right in front of the register, and the name-dropped items are featured prominently.” Hummel added, “Display so the name-drop is visible, but other than that…make it look good and shoppable.”

Volunteer Breah Ponds of the Central Florida Zoo and Botanical Gardens photographed with a penny press machine. All types of souvenirs sell well for the store.

Retailers continue to plan for the next season. Coogan is looking ahead at how her team can apply what they’ve learned during the pandemic, and life in general post-COVID. “I’m looking forward to attending trade shows and working directly with manufacturers again. We have virtual meetings on Zoom but I’m looking forward to having meetings in person. I’m also interested in understanding new ways of doing business. I enjoy having the freedom to purchase items and create displays. One of my main goals is to focus on the guest experience with animals, so I search for product related to our animals. Since our guests can participate in giraffe feedings and rhino encounters, the products I purchase at our gift shop are related to those animals. So when guests go into the gift shop, they can pick out a souvenir to commemorate their day. A new item that we’re very excited about this year is our Penny Press, which is located in the gift shop. It was hand-painted by a Zoo staff member and features four of our animals on its sides—otter, giraffe, alligator, and rhino.”
Name-dropped items are consistently among zoo and aquarium retail shop’s biggest sellers. Through a combination of vendor suggestion, customer feedback, and sales history, retailers can choose from a wide selection of merchandise to bear the venue’s name.

A colorful plush display at the Central Florida Zoo and Botanical gardens. In addition to plush, educational gifts such as books, gemstones, educational cards, and puzzles sell well for the store.

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