By Karen Appold

By displaying apparel in attractive ways, appealing to your demographic and employing good customer skills you can take your apparel sales to new heights.

Regarding clothing displays, Anita Morris, gift shop/office manager, Dakota Zoo, Bismarck, N.D., has found that using mannequins works well. “This gives customers a better look at the merchandise and allows them to see what it will look like when worn,” she said, adding that she suggests displaying apparel with accessory offerings to make it more appealing and increase product sales.

Briana Stantz, a gift shop cashier at the Washington Park Zoo in Michigan City. The store’s retail manager likes to hang apparel so any images are visible, or to make sure pictures of the design are shown with the display.

Briana Stantz, a gift shop cashier at the Washington Park Zoo in Michigan City. The store’s retail manager likes to hang apparel so any images are visible, or to make sure pictures of the design are shown with the display.

Signage is also important. “When new merchandise arrives, be sure to sign it as such,” Morris said. “Keep apparel neat and not too overcrowded. When customers cannot easily see a garment, they tend to walk away.”

Furthermore, be sure to “face” your apparel, meaning always have it close to the end of the pegs it hangs on. “Do not overstuff racks and make it hard to see the apparel,” Morris cautioned. “One or two pieces of each size is plenty.”

Shawne Sheldon, retail manager, Washington Park Zoo, Michigan City, Ind., is a proponent of hanging apparel so guests can see the image on it. “For those which I cannot (due to space restrictions), I make sure to have a picture of the shirt’s image with the display. I think the designs are what draws people in,” she said.

A hoodie in unique aqua is displayed with a necklace, hat and plush at the Dakota Zoo. A store official advised not overstuffing racks with apparel, but instead stocking two pieces of each size.

A hoodie in unique aqua is displayed with a necklace, hat and plush at the Dakota Zoo. A store official advised not overstuffing racks with apparel, but instead stocking two pieces of each size.

For David Whitaker, retail director, NC Zoo Society, Asheboro, N.C., displaying a polar bear T-shirt with other polar bear items such as plush and key rings to promote that species works well. “Or, we may have a line of T-shirts featuring different animals such as lions and wolves and so forth or have a promotional T-shirt that we hang outside of the store,” he said.

Make displays eye-catching, but don’t overwhelm customers with too much color or choice, suggested Barbara Safley, gift store manager, Living Desert Zoo and Gardens State Park, Carlsbad, N.M. Items should be neatly folded and sorted by different sizes.

Appeal to Your Demographic

Any successful gift shop should be in tune to the lifestyles, cultures and geography of its customer base. “This will provide a lot of information about the types of merchandise you should carry,” Morris said. “North Dakota is an agricultural and rural state. As a result, our items reflect that. I carry a lot of earthy, casual, comfortable clothing because that is what people wear here. We also have a very strong Native American culture, so I offer items that appeal to this population as well. If I were to carry a New York style sweater or expensive handbag, it wouldn’t sell.”

Anita Morris, gift shop/office manager, Dakota Zoo in Bismarck, N.D. Morris recommends displaying apparel and accessories together to increase sales.

Anita Morris, gift shop/office manager, Dakota Zoo in Bismarck, N.D. Morris recommends displaying apparel and accessories together to increase sales.

Sheldon has also found that the weather plays a big role in what shoppers buy. “We’re located by a lake, and the weather tends to get chilly so I stock up on sweatshirts,” she said. “Bright colors for the younger kids and more neutral colors for adults have done well. Usually our larger sizes sell out first. Price is also always a factor, so I price them reasonably.” Gift shop sales are more than $100,000 annually.

Whitaker said his demographic is very broad, so the shops try to offer something for everyone from an onesie to commemorate an infant’s first trip to the zoo to a golf shirt for a senior citizen. “As far as niches go, our best demographic is toddlers,” he said.

Safley said the zoo’s visitors are travelers from different regions of the world. “They are looking for named-dropped items that are reflective of the zoo, so we make sure the T-shirts depict the animals of our area with as much accuracy as we can,” she said.

Plush works well as a display prop with this black hoodie at the Dakota Zoo. Mannequins are a good way to show customers how apparel will look, the store’s gift shop and office manager said.

Plush works well as a display prop with this black hoodie at the Dakota Zoo. Mannequins are a good way to show customers how apparel will look, the store’s gift shop and office manager said.

Although it may be easier to only offer gender-neutral T-shirts or put the same designs on a variety of apparel styles, Marsella Starzynski, store manager at Providence, R.I.-based Roger Williams Park Zoo, which has a partnership with Wildlife Trading Company, a retail outsource company for zoos, aquariums and other leisure attractions, aims to provide styles and design combinations that appeal to a particular gender and age group. She’s also not afraid to sell high-end apparel at the 3,000-square-foot store and minimizes lower-end clothing. “Shoppers are able to discern the differences and appreciate the value of quality fabric, application of design (e.g., heat, screen or stitch) and overall artistry,” she said. Since the zoo partnered with Wildlife Trading Company in 2010, spending per visitor in the zoo’s stores has increased over 40 percent.

Employ Customer Service Skills 

Morris’ staff greets everyone who enters the store with a smile and “hello.” “We let them look for a bit and then approach them and ask if there is anything specific they are looking for or if they need a size that they do not see out on the floor,” she said. “We offer to check our back stock for missing sizes, if necessary.”

Gift Store Clerk Jane Bujac and Barbara Safley, gift store manager, of the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens State Park in Carlsbad, N.M. Safley recommended not overwhelming customers with too much color or choice.

Gift Store Clerk Jane Bujac and Barbara Safley, gift store manager, of the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens State Park in Carlsbad, N.M. Safley recommended not overwhelming customers with too much color or choice.

Sheldon said staff is attentive and makes sure customers can find the sizes they need. They point out other styles that may be of interest.

Whitaker said staff make themselves available for questions. “If someone needs a size, they can help them locate it,” he said. Staff might also point guests to a sale table.

Safley said staff should know their product—such as material, how sizes fit, if it will shrink when washed and what designs mean or represent, such as the kokopelli.

Said Starzynski, “Have sales associates boast about apparel’s special features, such as moisture wicking, fade resistance, organic materials and so forth.”

Other Tips 

What else can you do to boost apparel sales? Wear your own apparel. “It says you like it so customers should, too,” Morris said. “Have a variety of colors available for shoppers to choose from. Some like color, while others don’t.”

In addition, keep your stock revolving. “Move things around every two weeks,” Morris suggested. “It will give your store a new look and regulars will see something new every time they come in.”

Gift Shop Cashier Cassie Schultz of the Washington Park Zoo. The retail manager said weather plays a big role in what shoppers buy in the store.

Gift Shop Cashier Cassie Schultz of the Washington Park Zoo. The retail manager said weather plays a big role in what shoppers buy in the store.

Sheldon said having variety and low prices is key. But at the shop, which is somewhat small at 800 square feet, she has found that picking a few designs that work for both adult men and woman and then offering colors that appeal to both boys or girls works best.

At the four gift shops at NC Zoo Society, which total 8,000 square feet and range in size from 435 to 3,400 square feet, “two-fers” always do well, such as selling two shirts that are the same product for $30, Whitaker reported. The stores have annual sales of $2.5 million.

Regarding other advice, Safley suggested not looking for what is hot or what everyone else is selling. “Customize your designs to fit what is natural to your area, but keep it simple and unique,” she said. Annual sales at the 936-square-foot shop exceed $110,000.

Top-selling Apparel Items 

As far as best-sellers, Morris said hoodie sweatshirts and T-shirts are tops. “They are mostly gender neutral and are a staple in everyone’s closets,” she said. “North Dakota has all types of weather and we need all types of apparel to go along with it.”

Sweatshirts are also a popular choice at Washington Park Zoo because of the cooler weather. “Customers are always looking for something to warm up with,” Sheldon said. Another favorite is infant and toddler T-shirts. “Parents are shopping for cute shirts, and buy it along with a plush animal or toys.”

Whitaker said The Mountain Company is its best vendor. “Its shirts have large beautiful designs and our name drop is on the sleeve,” he said. The Duck Company T-shirts and sweatshirts, which feature cartoon-type animals and funny slogans, also fly off the racks.

T-shirts and hats sell best at Living Desert Zoo and Gardens State Park’s gift shop. “We take great pride in making sure our T-shirt designs and colors represent our area, ensuring that they look fun as well as comfortable,” Safley said.