By Karen Appold
As the retail and purchasing manager at Nickelodeon Universe, a seven-acre theme park in the center of Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., Mary Nickelson knows what makes plush and toy sales successful—variety, location, and price point. “Strategically placing a mix of plush near our store entrances attracts more customers and drives sales,” she said. “We display a mix of classic style plush along with newer, trendy styles to appeal to a wider audience.”
Her selection includes a large range of price points which appeals to all customers. “The wide variety of plush catches customers’ eyes—both young and old alike. When they enter the retail space, they pick up, touch, squeeze, and lovingly hug the cuddly plush products. While this helps drive sales—the smiles are priceless,” Nickelson said.
Along these lines, Levi Tobias, merchandise manager at Worlds of Fun & Oceans of Fun in Kansas City, Mo., said that each of the parks’ 15 stores have a variety of plush and toy items available in a range of price points. “We specifically focus on offering a variety of offerings that appeal to any age demographic because although children may be the primary consumer, you’re missing an entire market segment if you only focus on kids,” he said. “You want every single customer to be drawn to some plush or toy item—whether it’s for themselves or someone else.”
For Susan Vaslev, co-owner and buyer at the Enchanted Forest Theme Park in Turner, Ore., boosting sales of plush is all about visibility. “Placing items at children’s eye level works well,” she said. “Kids love to touch and interact with items. Having unpackaged toys displayed allows them to do this.”
Callie McFaul, corporate buyer at Wilderness Hotel and Golf Resort in Wisconsin Dells, Wis., chooses a colorful assortment of plush, particularly those that are bright and bold in a variety of colors. This attracts children of all ages.
When it comes to selling toys in particular, Nickelson has found that offering a wide selection to appeal to different age groups, genders, and interests is key. Her selection includes trendy and newer toys, as well as a variety of classic toys such as Barbies and Hot Wheels. “Classic toys often appeal to parents or older shoppers who enjoy the nostalgia of seeing the toys they played with as kids,” she said. “This can lead to parents showing the toys to their kids and explaining how special they are. My guess is that parents purchase them to enjoy together with their kids.”
As an international destination, Nickelson said guests at Mall of America and Nickelodeon Universe are attracted to classic and nostalgic selections as Americana items.
Another way to increase sales of plush is to create plush towers. Nickelson places vertical display units near store entrances that show off a wide variety of plush products. “The displays consistently grabs guests’ attention and imagination as they walk by,” she said. “Not only do the towers drive traffic into the store, but they also allow customers to view the variety of plush quickly and easily. Although customers may be drawn to a specific plush, they may purchase complementary or matching units which helps to drive sales and reinforces customer satisfaction.”
Grouping like items together that create a story is also an effective strategy for Nickelson. “A guest can easily view an entire assortment,” she said. “They may have come in to buy an action figure or doll, but when they see the complete line in a story they may ultimately decide to purchase multiple items.” Nickelodeon Universe has three retail spaces, which range from 1,100 to 3,900 square feet.
When creating plush displays, Tobias also aims to create a story within the display. “We want customers to be drawn to the items, but also the narrative behind the scene they are seeing within the display,” he said. “This helps us connect to customers emotionally.”
Vaslev advised mixing bright-colored plush with muted-colored plush. “The bright colors will draw someone in, which will help bring more attention to muted-colored toys,” she said.
Display a lot of toys, but don’t overcrowd them which will make it difficult for customers to see individual items, Vasley continued. Display items for kids on low shelving so they can see and touch them.
Displaying plush in an organized fashion at her 1,200-square-foot shop works well for McFaul. “By placing similar items together, you can create a wow factor which appears easy to shop and kid-friendly,” she said.
Finding New Merchandise
When looking to add new items to her inventory, Nickelson analyzes current sales to better understand market trends. “We explore whether we should expand an assortment or top sellers, research if there are similar or complementary series that could be as successful, and look to see if there are newer additions to best-selling categories,” she said.
As she researches market trends, Nickelson speaks with vendors and reads reports, retail merchandise magazines, and websites. Perhaps her best source of information is talking to guests to better understand what they’re looking for. After identifying potential new merchandise options, she looks at her overall marketing and retail strategy to ensure that new items are a good fit for her retail space and fit within a price range customers expect.
Visiting shows across the country, and speaking with vendors, works well for Tobias. “When I visit shows I think back to when I was a kid,” he said. “I look for vendors who fill me with the same magic of when I received a favorite toy as a kid. I want to create the same type of connections for my customers in the merchandise we sell.”
McFaul learns a lot from attending trade shows as well. “I keep an open mind when making purchases and am willing to try new items,” she said.
Vasley relies on sales representatives who have worked with her for a long time. “If you don’t have trusted sales reps, go to trade shows,” she advised.
Popular Plush at Water and Theme Park Shops
Plush come in many shapes and sizes these days, so which ones are top dog at water and theme park gift shops?
Nickelodeon Universe at Mall of America has a custom designed line of plush, which is its best-seller. Within that line, the overall best-selling plush is a custom 18-inch Appa from the film and television series “Avatar the Last Airbender.”
“It consistently remains our best overall selling plush because it is soft, cuddly, high-quality construction, and he is just so dang cute,” said Mary Nickelson, retail and purchasing manager.
Another top seller for Nickelson are 6-foot-long plush snakes that come in a variety of colors and designs. Some even feature special materials, such as sequins, that appeal to boys and girls of all ages.
Levi Tobias, merchandise manager at Worlds of Fun & Oceans of Fun in Kansas City, Mo., said its logo tie-dye teddy bear is most popular. “Tie-dye may have been created decades ago, but it is definitely still a favorite for guests of all ages,” he said. “It is bold, fun, and nostalgic.”
Monty the Moose is the most popular plush at Wilderness Hotel and Golf Resort in Wisconsin Dells, Wis., said Callie McFaul, corporate buyer. The toy wears a Wilderness Resort T-shirt.
For Susan Vaslev, co-manager and buyer at the Enchanted Forest Theme Park in Turner, Ore., plush bags containing a plush animal with “Enchanted Forest” embroidered on the side are all the rage. “This satisfies the parent’s desire to buy their child a memento of their visit and the child’s desire to have something cute and cuddly,” she said. The park has three shops, ranging from 285 to 945 square feet.