Depending on the area, a good number of zoos and aquariums have re-opened with safety protocols in place. Just as patrons are happy to have the opportunity to visit, facilities are just as happy to welcome customers back. The resident creatures are pretty jazzed about it too! Of course, any such outing would hardly be complete without a stroll through the onsite gift shop. For this article, one zoo and one aquarium in distinctly different locales described what the retail scene currently looks like for them.
Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga, Tenn., championed the turtle in 2020 and proclaimed it the Year of the Turtle. In March, they even opened a new turtle exhibit to mark the occasion. As a result, plush turtles have sold very well inside the facility’s gift stores. The aquarium is split between two separate buildings –River Journey and Ocean Journey and each features its own gift shop, measuring 2,800 square feet and 1,800 square feet respectively. There is a third retail outlet inside the Aquarium’s IMAX Center, although that remains closed at this time.
River otters are yet another popular attraction at Tennessee Aquarium and therefore plush items depicting them are also good sellers. “All the kids coming though these days are buying plush as a memento while the adults are buying T-shirts,” said Gift Shop Manager Micheal T. Floyd. He didn’t think adults reach for T-shirts out of a pandemic-driven desire for comfortable attire, however. “From what we’ve seen as a result of the pandemic, it doesn’t seem to matter what you have out on the sales floor – it’s probably going to sell! People are just so excited to have an in-person shopping experience when they come visit. For most people, this is one of the first places where they feel comfortable coming because of our mask mandates. And we have everything in place for social distancing so it’s the first time they’re getting a memorable shopping experience that isn’t a grocery store.”
Tennessee Aquarium retail is operated by Event Network which does all the buying and visual merchandising for its gift stores. However, there is one display technique that Floyd always tries to follow, especially in the River Journey gift shop. “If we’re putting a fixture together, we want to make sure that it’s shoppable from all sides,” he said. The River Journey gift shop is designed to simulate a flowing river, an effect accomplished courtesy of ceiling lights and patterned carpeting. Patron traffic goes with the flow, so to speak. “Some people will go around one side of the fixture, and some people will go around the other. It’s a really good idea say, if you have a table, to make sure there is a display all the way around that people can shop from,” he concluded.
When ZooMontana reopened in May, the number of people who came to visit was practically overwhelming. “I think we were one of the only places in town that was primarily an outdoor attraction. All those families who had been cooped up for months finally had a place to go,” said Kathy Barton, the Guest Services manager. The gift shop didn’t reopen for another month, but the patrons soon flowed just as steadily through it as well. “I’ve looked at the numbers and people aren’t spending any more than they normally do but there are just more people and therefore a lot more sales.” Across the board, plush is always the best-seller inside the 1,350-square-foot retail space. Plush versions of a red panda, a river otter and a tiger represent the top three favorites. Another item that competes handily with plush are bookmarks which ZooMontana makes inhouse. Staff members photograph the animals and size the images so they will fit on a bookmark. They then mount them on colorful paper, put the animal’s name and species on the back, decorate it a little, laminate, and then finally tie a ribbon to the top. “Those are extremely popular. I think it’s because it’s a unique item, something you’ll only find here. And it’s like taking a piece of that animal home with you.”
Barton has had much success working with local vendors while scouting for new souvenir merchandise to stock the gift shop. “We’ve got this wonderful Made in Montana fair and I can go there and find local vendors. It’s great because we’re a smaller gift shop that wants fun, custom ornaments or key chains or pottery or whatever, but we also don’t want to buy 4,000 of them to get a decent price!”
Barton finds she can work with local vendors and get some really unique items, tailor-made in smaller quantities. Her customers feel good about supporting local artisans as well. In terms of display, ZooMontana’s retail space is very compact, so staff has to be very creative and utilize every square inch to the best of its ability. Case in point would be a chicken nesting box that once hung from the store’s ceiling which they pulled down and incorporated into their plush display. Whereas once it was inaccessible and a waste of space, now it’s packed with plush birds and people shop right out of it. “Plus, it’s magnetic so we stick some of our souvenir magnets on it too. We sell more magnets off of that nesting box that we do off of our actual magnet display!” Barton concluded.
What Are Kids’ Favorite Souvenirs?
Plush is leading right now at Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga, Tenn., primarily the facility’s main creatures which are turtles, otters, sharks, and penguins. “We’ve been able to keep a pretty large quantity of plush on hand, but toys have been a little harder to get because of the pandemic. They’re delayed months out sometimes, but fortunately we have great relationships with our vendors who have helped mitigate that impact by suggesting alternatives so we still have a great selection available for our guests,” said Micheal T. Floyd, the gift shop manager.
Although plush is always a winner at ZooMontana in Billings, Mont., the gift shop also sells thousands of Good Luck Minis – a line of miniature animal figurines by Safari, Ltd. “We sell them for just 75 cents apiece. We try to carry as many animals as we can, so kids start to collect them. Every visit, they get others to add to their collection,” said Guest Services Manager Kathy Barton.