By Joanna Ireland
Most people visit national parks, monuments, and campgrounds to enjoy the great outdoors and connect with nature. But you can’t take the park with you—except in photographs—so a fair number of those people also head to the stores for a souvenir or memento to remind them of their visit. As a rule, merchandisers and buyers work to find toys and games that enhance a visitor’s experience, carry the message of each park, and provide more education about conservation and preservation.
“The focus of Yosemite Conservancy bookstores is to enrich the visitor experience,” said Adonia Ripple, director of Yosemite Operations at the conservancy located in San Francisco, Calif. “All our toys and games contain some interpretive or educational value. Since we’re limited in what we can sell, we ensure that they’re related to exploring Yosemite.”
Ripple said that creating products that are relevant to a person’s national park experience is key to selling more toys and games. “Our customers are looking for mementos of their time in Yosemite, so we work to provide high-quality products reflective of our organization’s conservation values while also helping guests to remember their visit.
“Plush is one of the few toys we sell, so our plush sales are always up. Our plush feature local Yosemite animals including a black bear with a radio collar and an ear tag to educate visitors about how to keep our bears wild. These bears also help explain what happens to them when they become oriented to human food. Another plush is our pika, which allows us to raise awareness about climate change, as the rising temperatures in the high Sierra have affected pika populations.”
Dawn Roark, the retail director of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Gatlinburg, Tenn., agreed that they choose the toys and games sold in the park visitor locations based on their relevance to the park and the outdoors. “The toys and games are educational in nature and designed to teach about an aspect of the park—whether it’s learning about safety, preservation, or the importance of respecting wildlife. Each item includes an interpretive message written to impart educational values.”
Roark said she encourages the staff to display the toys and games at eye-level of the stores’ younger visitors. “This display encourages children to reach out and touch them,” she said, “and when we have the space available, we’ll often open a game and encourage the children to interact with it directly.”
Roark said that when designing a great-selling custom toy, “make the toy or game something unique to your park or directly related to another product you sell. For example, we worked with a vendor to design a plush Red Cheeked Salamander because these amphibians are only found in the Smokies. We collaborated with another vendor to develop a Flying Squirrel plush named Sabrina, a main character in one of our popular children’s books. Both these toys teach children about the need to protect our park’s natural resources so that these animals continue to thrive here. Although we don’t name-drop our plush,” she said, “overall plush sales are still very strong for us.”
Debby Crain, retail director of Sequoia National Park in Three Rivers, Calif., finds that “People don’t come into our visitor center store looking for toys or games specifically as they would in a toy store. We want to teach people about our parks, and what could be more fun than a toy or game to take with you to continue your learning! We must choose what’s relevant to where and who we are, and it must be educational.
“When you’re designing a great-selling custom toy, it should be relevant to your park’s mission. For example, we just recently added a specific stuffed animal—a Mountain Yellow Legged Frog—to our collection. This frog is endangered, and there’s a program that includes the San Francisco and Oakland Zoos and the National Park Service who are collaborating to repopulate this frog in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Our goal with this plush is to raise awareness of the program and to donate a percentage of sales back to the National Park Service so they can continue to help this frog survive.
“Our goal,” said Crain, “is not to be a toy store, but to sell things that educate people and pique their interest in learning more. We do have some plush with a logo, but I don’t think it’s made much of a difference in their sales. They really do sell themselves. Our main goal is that we want our visitors to remember where they bought the plush and that they had a good time and hopefully want to learn more or visit again.”
Katie Johnston, executive director of Interior, S.D.’s Badlands National Park said, “The difference in selling items in a national park versus a toy store is that ours must follow an educational and interpretive theme for our area and/or the national parks in general. Most of today’s children’s games sold at toy stores do feature some kind of learning tool, but ours are specific to engaging children in public lands or are tools they can take out with them into the park, like compass bracelets and adventure tools.
“We have a specific area in our store to display the toys, games, and plush. We have them at eye level for adults and bins and shelves for easy access for our younger visitors. We’ve also posted signs throughout the store to educate shoppers that all proceeds from the sales go directly back to support the park. I’ve already heard people say, ‘We might not need another stuffed animal, but it’s for a good cause,’” she said.
Johnston said that the best advice for designing great-selling toys is to attach them to your area. “We sold ‘Conservation Critters’ for a limited time, specific to our area. The proceeds from these purchases went directly to the resource management wildlife division in our park to help with endangered animals, bison round-ups, and big horn sheep collaring.”
Johnston said they found that sales of plush didn’t increase when they added name-dropped plush to their inventory, “so we dropped that added expense. I think the purchase of plush in our store is mostly an impulse buy,” she said, “nothing that’s planned. So the name-drop is more of a bonus than a requirement for the customer. As long as the displays are done well, you’ve provided several options from which to choose, and prices stay within reason, they’ll sell well.
“We do have a few book/plush combos that are very popular, including the black footed ferret that accompanies a book called The Hole Story and a prairie dog that goes with The Badlands A to Z. People who purchase the combo do save a little money.”
Wild River State Park is one of 76 state parks in the Minnesota park system. Kerrin Reisner, the reservation and retail program consultant, said that the difference between selling toys and games at park stores versus toy stores depends on the park. “Each park store has control over what it carries, and the managers work with statewide buyers who recommend products. We do have guidelines to follow about different things, like stocking items that are native to Minnesota and choosing inventory that will enhance the visitor experience. We try to keep our toys on theme, so they’re related to nature, the outdoors, and camping, which is how they can help make a connection for kids to learn more about environments with which they might not otherwise be familiar.
“It’s good to offer lower price points so kids don’t have to beg their parents to spend a lot of money, and parents’ stress is lower. That’s easy for us,” said Reisner, “because we’re less about profit margins and more about providing something that the kids will enjoy. Some of our stores have displays near the registers; others have sections that specifically feature toys and games. We do have a lot of plush that feature the region of the park they’re visiting.”
Reisner said that overall, she thinks plush sales are up. “They sell well, but sales also depend on visitation because so much of our business is weather-dependent. The sales really aren’t based on need but more on things we can’t control. When July 4 falls in the middle of the week, like this year, we have fewer weekends. Holidays that fall closer to weekends generate more traffic.
“But our plush do sell well because they’re cute, eye-catching, and soft. They appeal to kids who are drawn to them much more than the decks of cards, coloring books, and Bingo games we sell.”
Reisner said, “When we’re considering designing a custom toy, we ask ourselves whether it will enhance the customer experience. It’s important to create something that’s more memorable with a good price point. So, we ask a lot of clarifying questions, and if the answers are yes, and it’s in the budget, then we go ahead and do it. If it’s not a big seller, we can stop production but if it’s a good fit, we’ll keep offering it.”
Marina Baker, store manager of Lake George Escape Campground in Lake George, N.Y., said, “We don’t really sell a lot of toys and games, but we do sell card games and travel games that work well for playing in the tents, especially when it’s raining. You have to stock items that kids will use at their campsite or outside in general.
“If you’re going to sell toys, choose ones that work well to play outside—like Can Jam or frisbee golf—or games for bad weather days, like Uno,” she said. “If you’re going to sell a custom toy, include branding. The store used to sell stuffed animals with a bandana that had the campground logo and said ‘I love camping’ and those sold well. This year, I’ve sold a lot of plush—more than I expected for it being a camp store. But our price points are good, and the little plush that aren’t name-dropped but are really cute do seem to work with our customers.”