By Susan Mease
As states responded differently to COVID rules and restrictions, so too did state parks. Read on to see the pandemic’s impact on gift shops at state parks.
At Carter Caves in Olive Hill, Ky., Acting Store Supervisor Amy Sparks said that COVID didn’t bother them. People continued to come to their park to get away from “all that.” The store was only closed for a couple of months and the sales this year seem to be running about the same as last year. They have a very popular gem mine outside where little kids and big kids (aka adults) enjoy panning for gemstones or fossils. In addition to the bags of mining material, T-shirts are her other hot seller. They are displayed on the wall so you see them as you walk in. She emphasizes Carter Caves specific designs on all her products and has ordered more name-dropped items like mugs, shot glasses, and backscratchers, keeping mostly to low end prices.
Sparks said the store shelves look a little thin as she is having trouble getting merchandise. Orders are taking four to eight weeks to arrive, so she has to be more proactive than usual in her ordering.
Christa Drake, one of the park managers at Lake Bemidji State Park in Minnesota, said their sales are a little up from before the pandemic. The store was closed for most of 2020. She does best with sweatshirts and T-shirts with the park name on them and with plush of animals specific to the park. She puts plush at kids’ eye level and it’s the first thing you see as you walk in the store. T-shirts and sweatshirts are displayed on the wall under lighting with the various sizes folded in cubbies. Tie dye is super popular in blues and pastels. The store is very small, but they also sell vehicle permits there so there is good walk-in traffic. Like most park stores, they sell pins and stickers that are specific to them and medallions for hiking sticks. They also sell some candy. Drake said there are some positions open as they are having a hard time finding employees.
The gift shop at Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort State Historic Park in Nevada is small, about 20 feet by 20 feet, but it is right by the Visitors’ Center front desk, and you must walk through it coming into the park and leaving. Beth Hewitt, park supervisor, said they’ve had a slight increase in visitors this year and “people want to spend.” Books are the top seller, then souvenirs specific to the site like lapel pins. Kids like rocks and minerals and she also carries low end jewelry as well as necklaces in the $30 range that are made from recycled sari material that she got in just before COVID hit. She will feature new items on their Facebook page and in the “Friends of the Fort” newsletter. The store gets about 30-40 visitors a day, solid growth from the 100 a week when she started about six years ago, an increase she attributes to each park getting more autonomy for ordering. Her top tip for increasing sales of a particular item is playing around with placement in the store and she is lucky enough to have staff with retail experience. Hewitt’s supervisor is Retail Storekeeper III Nicki Kendrick. She agreed with Hewitt that visitor spending is higher than normal and they’re up from last year. She said, “I think that has a lot to do with people just needing to get outside. Right now, between the two top grossing store in the Nevada system the top sellers are T-shirts and beach supplies.” She recommended that you ensure the displays are clean and fully stocked as “people tend to not want to buy an item if it is the last one on display.” Of course, try to make sure that you are open and welcoming when customers come in. She also recommended that you display things in a staggered line as that tends to draw the eye to that area more than a straight line. The annual sales for all nine Nevada stores are around $1,000,000.
Lake Murray State Park in Ardmore, Okla., stayed open last year and Park Manager Richard Keithley, a 25-year veteran, said they were “swamped” with visitors. He attributed that to their location being on a main highway between Dallas/Ft. Worth and Oklahoma City. Keithley said, “We’re still up from before COVID and I don’t think it’s going down.” He also said that stickers are huge for him along with hat pins, hats, T-shirts, hiking sticks, medallions, bandanas, roasting forks, and plush. “People are in a mood to buy stuff.” His only tip for improving sales is “keep the shelves full and keep the doors open.” He has run into some supply issues but said that’s another reason to emphasize American made and, even better, locally made. The shop is about 20 feet by 20 feet, and he said an average day’s receipts might be $1,500-$2,000 or it might be zero.
Aaron Farmer, the park manager at Dead Horse Point State Park in Moab, Utah, is excited to report that their numbers are way above last year or the year before. However, he is having trouble getting merchandize because of COVID and the Suez Canal blockage. He still has lots of back orders and they will be going into the fall merchandising season shortly and he lacks merchandise. Summer is usually very slow as they are in the desert and it is very hot, especially this year. He urged shop buyers to focus on the park’s brand and use a consistent logo. The view at his park is world famous so everybody wants to buy something that evokes that view. He signs things that are new so they stand out. The store is about 350 square feet, but Farmer said they pack a lot in, and he did about $750,000 for FY 2020-2021. They also sell snacks, ice, and firewood for camp sites.
At Fort Bridger State Historic Park in Fort Bridger, Wyo., Park Superintendent Joshua Camp said they only reopened in late June and, at the time of writing, weren’t quite all the way open. The main gift shop has opened but the second shop which is a replica of Jim Bridger’s trading post carrying goods available in Bridger operated it in the 1840s hasn’t reopened because of spacing restrictions. Even with that handicap, Camp said their sales are much higher than they were in 2019. “People seem to want to spend money; they’re tired of being cooped up.” His best-selling items are rabbit furs (the least expensive pelts he carries), nonfiring replica guns, and books which Camp said are hard to keep up with. He said he used to have the guns in a locked, glass case but moved them high on a wall, too high to touch, and sales improved. Camp preaches the importance of good lighting, especially because the trading post is fairly dark. The trading post is about 20 feet by 20 feet, and the regular shop is about 16 feet by 26 feet, and they average $350-$400 in sales daily.
Becky Canada, the gift shop supervisor at Cumberland Falls State Park in Corbin, Ken., said they have been at full speed since reopening. Her best-selling items are anything with the Falls on it: magnets, patches, T-shirts, cups. They are just as busy as before COVID and she has brought in more items specific to the area. She displays Cumberland Falls -specific items to the right of the door, and general Kentucky items to the left. She also sells a line of Kentucky-made products in the center of the store. Canada described the store as “not a very big space” but they do very well, averaging $5-9,000/day. Some of the hand-made pottery is as high as $45 and she also sells Willow Tree angels. She is also selling more snacks and cold drinks because the snack shack at the Falls couldn’t open due to short staffing.
The Pearl Harbor National Memorial, and the store on site, in Hawaii were closed for four months in 2020 due to COVID. Director of Communications and Development Jim McCoy said they’ve experienced a growth of sales since reopening and are close to achieving pre-COVID revenue levels. Their best-selling items are American flags flown over the Pearl Harbor National Memorial and the USS Arizona Memorial with certificates. T-shirts, hats, coins, and pins also do very well. They also sell a “multitude” of books including those written by Pearl Harbor survivors. In a store like his with its unique story, McCoy said the eye-catching displays are the ones that passionately tell a story such as one for a book and DVD package by Lauren Bruner, a sailor stationed aboard the USS Arizona who survived the attack. He passed away in 2019 and was interred in the USS Arizona during a special ceremony on Dec. 7, 2019, to be with his fallen shipmates in eternity. Of course, all displays need to be accessible, with good signage. The store is 2,053 square feet and annual sales during fiscal year 2019 (pre-Covid) was $7,000,000.
Suzanne Fouts is the concessionaire owner of the stores at Fort Wilkins State Park in Copper Harbor, Mich., and McLain State Park in Hancock, Mich., which she described as being as far in the northwest of Michigan as you can get. Consequently, COVID had little impact. They were closed May and June 2020 but made up that lost income the first three weeks they were reopened. Their overall numbers are way up. Her best-sellers are coffee mugs, magnets, and ice cream (she makes her own waffle cones). It’s important that whatever she sells be name-dropped with either the name of the park or the town. Fouts puts small items on the counter where they are handy for up-selling and said it is important to keep everything neat and tidy, no clutter. The McLain store is about 40 feet by 30 feet and one day sales average about $1,500. The Fort Wilkens store is about 75 feet by 30 feet and the one-day sales average about $3,000. She sells subs, fudge, and popcorn in addition to souvenirs.
Fouts is bothered by the fact that, because of social distancing rules, she can’t have enough staff in place to provide what she considers to be good customer service. Like many other managers interviewed, she’s also having a hard time hiring staff. She’s also having some trouble getting merchandise, especially T-shirts, although she said that’s loosening a little. She has eight orders that were due in May that still haven’t arrived. Before COVID Fouts also owned a hockey rink; that closed and is not going to reopen. That’s the difference between indoor activities and people getting out into the wide-open spaces.