Mark Girardy stocks both name-dropped and generic plush at the gift shops he oversees at the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium. But where possible, he likes to put the Dubuque, Iowa museum’s logo on plush toys: They sell better that way.
“Having the name of our museum makes for a more meaningful souvenir,” explained Girardy. “It has that extra memory attached to it. Parents like that, and they’re willing to spend more for it.”
Name-dropped items, like anything customized, typically cost more to produce. But at zoos and aquariums, that logo can pay for itself; it’s the difference between just another stuffed toy and a genuine memento.
At the National Mississippi River Museum’s two gift shops, Girardy name-drops plush versions of the aquarium’s most popular animals. “Number one at the aquarium is probably our river otter, which is a huge hit with kids,” the Store Manager said. “It’s always huge at the gift shop, too. I can’t keep the plush version in stock.”
Girardy added that he is less likely to put the museum logo on less relevant or popular animals, like mermaids, sharks or octopus. But sales of all plush are soaring this year, as Museum visitation numbers are so far at or exceeding those of 2019.
At the Frank Buck Zoo in Gainesville, Texas, Gift Shop Manager Megan Kennedy takes a similar approach, name-dropping the zoo’s most beloved animals. “When we’ve had name-dropped plush, it was either our iguanas or the snakes,” said Kennedy, adding that as of July, the store did not have any in stock.
And it’s no surprise that the named dropped plush cheetahs are the top sellers at Wildlife Safari in Winston, Ore., which calls itself the nation’s number one cheetah breeding facility. “Our cheetah plush are very cute; they’re wearing logo hoodies in different colors,” said Gift Shop Manager Crystal Banks. The stuffed toys, from Wild Republic, celebrate a species that has seen more than 200 live births here.
Wildlife Safari never closed during the pandemic — guests experience the facility in their own cars — and attendance has been brisk throughout. “We had record sales last year, and we’ve been doing great this year as well,” said Banks. Along with plush, the store’s best-sellers include name-dropped apparel; one sweater featuring a cheetah and a rhinoceros “flies off the shelves,” noted Banks. “I’ve actually had to order it three times already.”
The Cleveland Metroparks Zoo gift shop names drop certain specialty items, like an endangered animals line from the “Future for Wildlife” conservation program. Store Manager Paula Hlucky said the line includes lions, tigers, elephants, rhinoceros and giraffes; all bear the zoo’s logo and the slogan “Be a hero for wildlife” on the tag.
A whimsical plush elephant, styled as a zookeeper, wears a vest with the zoo logo on it. “That one is pretty popular,” Hlucky observed.
With strong sales from a busy summer season, zoo and aquarium retailers have to move merchandise quickly. “I’ve never had to put plush on clearance, but I do have a small discount section for clothing when we get down to just a size or two,” said Girardy at the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium.
Megan Kennedy creates raffle baskets or baskets with markdowns at the Frank Buck Zoo. And at Wildlife Safari, Crystal Banks drops prices on slow selling items, then moves them into clearance. “I’d rather keep the product moving,” she said.
This summer, it seems, enthusiastic visitors will snap up nearly any well priced souvenir. “Guests will pretty much buy what we put out there,” said Store Manager Samantha Tritsch of the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden. “If it’s older, we’ll just re-merchandise it to make it look fresh.”
Aside from a small sale section, leftovers are rare at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo gift shop. “We sell out so much we don’t have much left over,” said Paula Hlucky. “We have a strong environmental program here, and people love to support the zoo through all our merchandise. And with lots of events, we are really busy.”