By Carimé Lane

T-shirts, sweatshirts, and hats are staple souvenirs for visitors at zoos and aquariums. For this article, we interviewed five zoo and aquarium shop personnel about their best-sellers in this area, along with the pandemic-driven changes they’ve made to operations.

Alex Hulgan, head sales lead, and Emily Decenso, store director, of The Birch Aquarium, photographed with apparel. Students and staff shop the store for apparel with the Oceanography program’s logo.

Currently, the best-selling shirt at Cameron Park Zoo in Waco, Texas, is a recreation of a cute map the zoo hands out to guests printed on the back of a Comfort Colors T-shirt, said Michele Schulz, guest services manager and buyer. Comfort Colors T-shirts are a hit, in particular with younger generations and college-aged kids.
“Anything on a Comfort Colors T-shirt is a best-selling T-shirt,” Schulz said.

Bright and tie died color schemes have been the second best-selling colors in both T-shirts and sweatshirts lately. Entire families have purchased tie died apparel so they all match, Schulz said.
Last spring, Schulz moved operations outdoors. Now, they’ve been back indoors for quite some time and are adhering to COVID safety and guest capacity protocols in the 3,400-square-foot gift shop. Schulz plans to keep up with the sanitization protocols post-pandemic.
Despite the pandemic, they’re doing very well, said Schulz, and are going “full steam ahead,” fully stocked and ready for Spring Break.

Associate Jered Willis of the St. Louis Aquarium at Union Station in St. Louis, Mo.  Henley hoodies with colorful strings, such as the one Willis is wearing, are the most popular hoodie for the attraction.

The Birch Aquarium is located at Scripp’s Institution of Oceanography (SIO) at the University of California San Diego. Since re-opening in October, their top-selling T-shirts have been those with SIO branding, said Store Director Emily Decenso.
Other popular shirts include those logoed or co-branded with SIO and the Aquarium.
The hoodies with this logo sold out almost immediately. Both students and staff are in store shopping specifically for these products since they’re the only store that carries the Oceanography program’s logo, Decenso said.
“Even our regular guests and members seem to be drawn to these pieces of apparel – the Institute is extremely well respected,” Decenso said.

A selection of popular T-shirt designs at the Birch Aquarium. Blue is the most popular T-shirt color at the store.

Blue is the most popular color for T-shirts and sweatshirts at Birch.
“It’s fitting because our location overlooks the bright beautiful blue that is the Pacific Ocean. Blue is also one of the staple colors for both the Birch Aquarium and SIO,” Decenso said.
Birch currently follows a strict safety protocol to keep guests, team members, and their living ocean life residents healthy, Decenso said.
“We plan to keep these practices in place for the foreseeable future, until it is safe to remove these added precautions, said Decenso. “The safety of our team members and guests is always our number one priority.”
At The St. Louis Aquarium at Union Station in St. Louis, Mo., Buyer and Union Station Merchandise Manager Chris Pittman said hoodies are popular year-round.
“People are always looking for a comfortable hoodie they can throw on and wear anytime,” Pittman said.

Guest Services Manager Michele Schulz of the Cameron Park Zoo in Waco, Texas. “Anything on a Comfort Colors T-shirt is a best-selling T-shirt,” Schulz said.

Their Henley hoodies, a lighter hoodie with their logo displayed on the front and rainbow-colored hoodie strings, are their most popular hoodie. Heavier hoodies, with a larger logo on the back and a small logo on the chest also sell very well. Their best-selling T-shirt is a simple circular aquarium logo design in dark grey heather.
Pittman recently started to purchase bright, fun colors in apparel.
“Bright, fun colors have been really well received recently, especially with the pandemic,” Pittman said.
Early last year, the store opened a website featuring the more popular items at the store so customers could browse from home.

Emily Decenso, store director, photographed with merchandise at The Birch Aquarium, which is located at Scripp’s Institution of Oceanography (SIO), University of California San Diego. Since re-opening in October, branded SIO T-shirts are top-selling for the store.

And, in their almost 4,000-square-foot store, Pittman focuses on making the shopping experience easier while one-on-one interactions are limited due to distancing protocols.
Pittman ensures that prices and signage are clear and readily seen. He also reorganized the store to make locations of items intuitive to guests. For instance, popular items like plush are displayed just outside the exit door, and adult apparel is located a little further inside. He also purchased merchandise – like the hoodies with rainbow colored hood strings – that pop from a distance.
Pittman added that almost 65 % of his merchandise is sourced from local businesses (minority, women-owned, and so on) in St. Louis.

Mark Girardy, store manager and buyer, The National Mississippi River Museum Aquarium, Dubuque, Iowa, photographed with a T-shirt display. A T-shirt with vibrant neon writing paired with soft, bright, background colors is a returning favorite this year, Girardy said.

“You’re supporting local business when you shop with us,” Pittman said.
Diana Clark, gift shop manager at the Audubon Nature Institute, said the zoo has a large member base. So, top-selling T-shirts are a toss-up between conservation shirts, where the vendor gives a portion of their sales to conservation and T-shirts featuring local themes, like the mythical Rougarou, white gator and pelican.
The facility mainly sells sweatshirts when there’s a spike in cold weather. This year, because Mardi Gras was cancelled, they chose to support local Mardi Gras artists by carrying sweatshirts the artists designed. These ended up being their best-selling sweatshirts of the season.
Blue is the most popular color for T-shirts and sweatshirts. It’s bright, and works well for all genders and ages, Clark explained.

Of the Cameron Park Zoo, from left to right: Retail Sales Coordinator Ashlea Oliver; Zoo Retail Assistant Justice Mantooth; and Guest Services Manager Michele Schulz. Bright and tie died color schemes sell well at the store.

Due to the pandemic, the store thinned out the number of fixtures on the floor to allow for more space in their two zoo gift shop locations totalling 5,000-square-feet and two aquarium locations totaling 2,000-square-feet. Clark sees this change becoming permanent post-pandemic.
Mark Girardy, store manager and buyer at The National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium in Dubuque, Iowa, said the top-selling T-shirt this year for them was a “returning favorite.” The T-shirt features vibrant neon writing paired with soft, bright background colors.
Sweatshirt-wise, their best-seller was a budget friendly hoodie.

Sweatshirts on display at The National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium. A budget-friendly hoodie with a simple logo gives guests a great opportunity for a quality sweatshirt.

“We didn’t overthink it with just our simple logo” said Girardy. “But it gave guests a great opportunity to get a quality sweatshirt, while staying within a price they could afford this year.”
While bright colors took the lead this year, Girardy noted that perennial favorites like navy and grey still performed well.
Their annual sales, at approximately $500,000 last year between four shop locations (two of which are seasonal), was stronger than expected given the pandemic, but still a bit lower than previous years, Girardy reported.
Like Clark, Girardy also removed some floor displays to facilitate social distancing. This presented an opportunity to declutter and give guests more breathing room to shop the store.
“Going forward, we plan to be more aware of how we balance product and space,” Girardy said.

Hats, and in the background, T-shirts, at The National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium. Sales at the attraction’s four retail locations, two of which are seasonal, were a bit lower last year than in previous years, but were stronger than expected given the pandemic, the store’s manager and buyer said.