By Natalie Hope McDonald
At the Philadelphia Zoo, the oldest-operating zoo in the U.S., Store Director Jerry Kelly said merchandise that displays the zoo name or that’s somehow tied to local culture always sells well in Philly season after season.
These days, Kelly said the zoo’s gift shop has stocked up on many different types of logoed items, including T-shirts, hoodies, pullovers, windbreakers, mugs, pencils, frames, key chains, magnets, postcards, water bottles, reusable bags, drawstring backpacks and patches. The merchandise ranges in both style and price points, which tends to appeal to everyone from school groups to families and international tourists.
“In general,” Kelly said, “the reusable totes sell extremely well. They are made from 100-percent recycled plastic water bottles. This fits in with our mission and the reduce/reuse movement that is focused on preserving our environment.”
A big part of the zoo’s efforts are focused on conservation and eco-friendly education, which is why Kelly likes to feature items like the reusable totes as a way to drive home the key messaging while offering customers a valuable and ultimately “green” product that celebrates the zoo. The totes are also useful long after buyers head home from their trip, especially as more and more people are using reusable totes as an alternative to plastic bags.
Small items that sport the zoo name and logo also tend to sell well at the gift shop. “Pencils sell well for school groups,” he explained, while “mugs, magnets, key chains and logoed shirts and hoodies sell well to tourists.” All of these items are priced competitively, which is especially important for school groups.
Toys also have an important niche at the shop. Plush is a big seller for kids and adults alike, especially the adorable tigers and giraffes that proudly wear Philadelphia Zoo safari vests.
Overall, Kelly said, “Local or regional associations work well.” In Philadelphia, names and images associated with such touchstones as Rocky, the Liberty Bell, and Philly’s famous soft pretzels and cheesesteaks, tend to appeal to visitors who want to capture the bigger experience. As such, Kelly has incorporated many local and regional flavors into the merchandise here. “But,” he said, “it has to be on the right merchandise. Usually the venue name is important; it links that item to a specific memory or experience for that guest and has some emotional value.”
He added, “Nothing sells better or faster than plush. Red Panda, Tiger and Sloth are always among our top five sellers.”
Where Style Trumps Logos
At the Santa Barbara Zoological Gardens, the gift shop features a slew of items that reflect the venue’s mission and exhibitions. The SB Zoo Channel Island Fox plush, for example, was made exclusively for the gift shop. There’s even an SB Zoo Beanie Baby Collection that features Buttercup the giraffe, Lewis & Clark foxes and Little Mac the elephant – all beloved creatures associated with the zoo experience.
Ross Reed Beardsley, director of retail operations at the zoo, said that the merchandise featuring the zoo’s name and/or logo really spans categories, including T-shirts, hats, plush, mugs, water bottles, pens, pencils, key chains, pins, bags of candy and personalized name programs. “T-shirts and hats sell the best, after plush, anyway,” explained Beardsley. “Most of our plush is not logo-ed.”
Many of these items are also featured in the online shop, including a Panorama magnet, Poo at the Zoo youth tee, a turtle sailor toddler baseball cap and an “I fed the goats at the Santa Barbara Zoo” stuffed animal.
The zoo, which is considered a mid-sized zoo as far as attendance and sales go (about 500,000 visit each year and spend approximately $1.5 million on retail), takes into consideration the diversity among visitors at the shop when selecting new inventory each season.
“Custom plush representing beloved animals at the zoo are best-sellers,” said Beardsley. “We are in our fourth or fifth reorder of our (still) famous crooked-neck giraffe who has been gone for almost 10 years now.”
T-shirts are the second best-selling category, but it can be challenging finding the sweet spot of what will sell each season. Beardsley admits, “Being a zoo, guests want T-shirts with your specific species of animals on them or, maybe more importantly, without animals. If a custom T-shirt bombs, we may be stuck with 144 to 288 pieces of an item that won’t sell – and they aren’t just a 50-cent item. They take up a lot more room than a keychain or magnet and they may get dusty or go out of style.”
Beardsley is careful about what he orders – keeping in mind the trends in sales to guests year after year. In many cases, logoed merchandise doesn’t always sell like it used to. People tend to be more conscious of fashion and style.
“I have been finding that the trend is that guests want fewer souvenirs to be name-dropped or logoed,” he said. “We are doing more T-shirts with only a really great animal on the front and our logo at the back neck.” Design is always eye-catching.
The shop is also moving into other designer territory. “There are some fine art pieces or even really creative stickers of designs of animals that I am leaving our logo or name off of,” Beardsley said. “Our guests are still animals lovers; that doesn’t mean they need our logo or name on everything they buy. What may have been true when I started 15 years ago is not true today. This will change, too, of course, but it’s very important to be sensitive to these trends or types of merchandise that you have sold well in the past.” He said they may stop selling, “and you won’t know why.”
Exploring Local Color
As a family of parks and museums dedicated to the natural world in New Orleans, the Audubon Institute has expanded its properties in recent years. Today, guests interested in learning more about flora and fauna can experience it at a zoo, aquarium, several parks and even an IMAX theatre.
Diana Clark, the institute’s director, said that the gift shops tend to reflect the overall mission of conservation, something that the Audubon has been focused on since it first opened its doors in 1975.
These days, everything from tumblers, mugs, shot glasses, tees and plush sell really well. Toys and souvenirs with logos are a big hit. “Kids are drawn to toys and adults want to leave with a memorable item with a logo,” said Clark, who says the gift shop really sells items that are unique to the region.
For example, the shop customizes Rourgarou shirts that now sell well. “It’s based on the old tale of a creature called the Rourgarou, a swamp creature,” she explained, “that scares kids.” Outside of Louisiana, people may not have heard of this folklore, but it has become a popular touchstone for people interested in exploring local culture.
Overall, said Clark, the top sellers at the shop tend to be toys and souvenirs. “Name-dropping those items,” she explained, “are key to sales.” Guests often come into the shop saying that they can get most items anywhere nowadays, which is why they want something uniquely Audubon. “Items without logos, like work by local artists, books, figurines and jewelry sell well. But finding items they can’t find elsewhere is a key factor.”