Gifts for a Perfect Souvenir Fit
Name-dropped and Custom Merchandise at Zoos and Aquariums

Gifts and apparel in a full corner of the Landry’s at the Downtown Aquarium store. The organization strives to offer meaningful souvenirs, not merely trinkets. Photo credit: Landry’s.

By Carimé Lane

Gift shops in zoos and aquariums allow guests to take their magical memories home through their offerings–especially when it comes to their name-dropped and custom merchandise. Apparel is a big seller at zoos and aquariums across the board, while selling techniques vary among merchants, according to retailers interviewed for this article.
Trish Means, gift shop manager at Buttonwood Park Zoological Society in New Bedford, Mass., said the store keeps their name-dropped/custom merchandise near to the cash wrap at the front of their shop.

Retail Buyer and Inventory Manager Jill Vincent with Josh Rothrock, retail manager, of the Greensboro Science Center in North Carolina, photographed with apparel displays and toys. In the name-dropped and custom categories, magnets and T-shirts sell best.

“Usually, when people come into our gift store in particular, there is an associate behind [the cash wrap],” explained Means. “There’s usually a verbal exchange of ‘Hello, how are you?’ and their eye gets drawn right over to that section.”
Means said customers have a peek at that merchandise first, may walk around the store and then, come back to the section.
“There’s a lot of memories made when you’re buying something from a day trip…so, you want to have something to remind you of that day,” Means said.

A reusable water bottle display at the John G. Shedd Aquarium. The organization strives to provide guests with lasting memories of their visit.

Buttonwood’s best-selling name-dropped/custom merchandise are their T-shirts, designed with caricatures of animals and name-dropped text. Brighter colours are usually a hit, Means said. And blue is a best-selling color because it works for either gender.
Sarah Henry, development and marketing officer, added that they have two Asian elephants in the zoo and one of the elephants has been living in the zoo since 1968.
“People who come to the zoo and see those elephants and then come to the gift shop, are immediately drawn to these elephant T-shirts, because as much as they’re part of the community, they’re part of the same community as these elephants,” Henry said.

A sign advertising merchandise that supports the John G. Shedd Aquarium’s efforts to spark compassion, curiosity, and conservation for the aquatic animal world. The retail operation incorporates images of their iconic animals into the merchandise.

Kathryn Liuzzi, director of retail purchasing for Landry’s at the Downtown Aquarium in Houston, said: “Selecting the right merchandise to name-drop or customize is key, as it’s a way to set ourselves apart from other destinations. We have found that sticking to items that appeal to a wide audience is important.”
Accordingly, they sell an assortment of merchandise, including items like various drinkware, plush toys and other unique retail offerings that are relevant to experiences the guests encounter at the aquarium.
“This ensures the guest finds a meaningful souvenir, not just another trinket,” Liuzzi said.
Liuzzi said they have great success with their name programs, specifically their PVC kid’s mugs.

Store Director Katherine Messer of the Texas State Aquarium in Corpus Christi, Texas. Table displays help boost sales for the retail operation.

“Each guest can take home their specific name. Even if we don’t have it in stock, we can custom order it and ship to them,” Liuzzi said.
Katherine Messer at the Texas State Aquarium, said that to help boost sales, they use table displays, such as their 30th anniversary celebration display, to show merchandise as part of a collection “that takes center stage as guests enter the shop.” The store pairs collections like this with products that support the aquarium’s special wildlife conservation and rescue efforts and signage that lets guests know they can make a difference, Messer said. According to Messer, because they can feel good about making an impact, guests are even more proud to wear the Texas state aquarium name.
Messer said their top selling item at the moment is their personal letter key chains.

Merchandise displays at the Buttonwood Park Zoological Society.
The attraction’s best-selling name-dropped/custom items are T-shirts,
with bright colors especially a hit.

“I believe that placing them at the register has a lot to do with their popularity,” Messer said. They’re also simple, easy-to-recognize and can easily be clipped onto a set of keys or a backpack, Messer said. What’s more: customers also appreciate the quality of the metal they’re made with.
Joy Love, director of corporate merchandise planning at San Diego Zoo Global said that, within the last few years, they’ve made the conscious effort to customize most of the product in their stores.
They run promotions in store and online to encourage multiple unit transactions (such as Buy X, Get X free, or a percentage discount).
“By testing different types of deals, we are able to determine what is successful and repeat what works,” Love said.
According to Love, other selling strategies include working with their retail operations partners on store contests for sales staff and working with their marketing partners to advertise promotions through newsletters, email blasts and social media (when appropriate).
They also merchandise product to showcase their “big ideas,” Love said. 

A merchandise display at the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Ill. T-shirts, hoodies, magnets, and keychains are name-dropped best-sellers for the attraction.

“For example, if we believe koala mugs are the trend, we create an impactful wall or fixture to show our guests that they are important,” Love said.
In the last few months, Love said, top sellers have included their branded face masks in our signature designs (Colorful Lion and Gorilla Shadow) and more recently, printed with ‘Save the Chubby Unicorns’ (in reference to rhinos).
Apparel is their best trending category. “Our guests gravitate to the same designs, but they also love our updated spins on animals such as elephants and tigers,” Love said.
Plush, etched mugs, water bottles, baseball hats, and stickers are also among their other branded big sellers.
Milissa Ferrari (from Event Network), store director at Chicago-based John G. Shedd Aquarium said that the most important element with any name-drop is that it reminds the guest of their visit.

At left, Sarah Henry, development and marketing officer, with Reagan Morton, gift shop employee, of the Buttonwood Park Zoological Society in New Bedford, Mass. Name-dropped merchandise is kept near the cash wrap area in the front of the store.

“We like to incorporate images of our iconic animals with our brand, providing the guests with a lasting memory of their time spent visiting,” Ferrari said.
Tees and hoodies are their best-selling name-dropped items, along with magnets and keychains, Ferrari said.
David Whitaker, retail director at the North Carolina Zoo said selling name-dropped and custom merchandise involves thinking about location and design. When it comes to location, the number one area to display merchandise is around the checkout area, he said.
With regards to design, Whitaker said simple and direct is key to selling more. He likened the ideal design to a billboard, because it catches someone’s attention quickly and is immediately recognizable.

A view of the sales floor at Landry’s at the Downtown Aquarium in Houston, Texas. Making sure name-dropped items appeal to a wide audience is an important consideration, the director of retail purchasing said. Photo credit: Landry’s.

“Sometimes people try to overdesign a souvenir with a name-drop, and then it loses it’s appeal,” Whitaker said.
Key chains are great sellers, as are little ceramic animals placed in clear cellophane boxes, with their name drop is on a card that slips into the back of the box, he said. T-shirts, which include conservation, humorous or educational themes, are also big sellers.
Also based in North Carolina is the Greensboro Science Center, which houses both an aquarium and zoo, and has an 800-square-foot gift shop.

David Whitaker, director of retail, the North Carolina Zoo Society. In the name-dropped category, key chains are great sellers for the store, as are small ceramic animas sold in clear boxes.

Jill Vincent, gift shop buying manager, said placing name-dropped/custom merchandise near the front entrance of the store helps with making sales. Josh Rothrock, gift shop manager, added that, as an all-in-one museum, zoo and aquarium in a prime location, they are a main tourist attraction–so their visitors are looking for these types of souvenirs.
Greensboro’s pre-Covid annual sales figure was $760,000. Their best-selling name-dropped/custom merchandise are their magnets and t-shirts. They carry four or five different styles of magnets, from a postage stamp to a die cast cut magnet and stock seven different types of shirts.
“Either it says our logo across the front of the shirt, or it has a feature animal that we have here on the shirt,” Vincent said.
Although they sell different types of apparel, the T-shirts do best due to the price point, added Vincent.

At the Texas State Aquarium, pictured are table displays featuring the attraction’s 30th Anniversary Celebration, as well as products that support the aquarium’s special wildlife conservation and rescue efforts.

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