Flippy sequins are the hottest thing in kids’ clothing right now. And at the Hutchinson Zoo’s gift store in Hutchinson, Kan., the sparkly fabric is helping to sell even more plush snakes than usual, said Shop Manager Hannah Grace. “Our snakes always do well, but the ones with flippy sequins are just really popular right now,” she said.
Stuffed versions of snakes, pandas and other favorite animals are the best-selling souvenirs at zoo and aquarium gift shops around the country. With price points typically south of $25, they’re an easy splurge for parents and grandparents.
“The biggest spenders tend to be adults who come in with children,” affirmed Grace. “There’s a lot of nagging that happens in that situation.”
The Hutchinson Zoo store has done well recently with a line of fist-sized, realistic plush animals. Like most of the store’s merchandise, the mementos reflect animals native to the zoo and its Midwestern environs: squirrels, frogs, snakes, deer, and many varieties of birds.
Small metal trains are also a favorite gift purchase, Grace said. Retailing for $20 and under, the 8-inch train wagons — which feature realistic parts, including moving wheels — are reminiscent of the Prairie Thunder railroad that runs around the nine-acre zoo. “Those trains really do well for us,” Grace said of the replicas.
In Memphis, Tenn., stuffed pandas are the top-selling souvenir at the Memphis Zoo, where the actual bears are a top attraction. “There aren’t very many zoos that have pandas right now,” observed Gift Shop Manager Catrina Wells. Nearly as popular are souvenir T-shirts, she added.
When shopping for gifts, Memphis Zoo guests gravitate toward more refined home decor pieces. Snow globes and wine glasses are shopper favorites; both items are engraved with the Memphis Zoo logo. “That’s one of the big reasons why people buy them,” Wells noted.
The Chattanooga Zoo in Chattanooga, Tenn., has a red panda on view, so its panda plush is a top seller, along with stuffed foxes, said Gift Shop Manager Nick Wainscott. “Plush is our mainstay; it’s probably the most successful retail item that we have,” he said.
Any plush that ties into blockbuster exhibitions also sells well at the store, which generates annual revenue of about $500,000. This season, Wainscott has seen an uptick in sales for anything giraffe related, in advance of a giraffe show this spring. “People are already getting excited about it,” Wainscott said in February.
The zoo gets a wave of tourists in summer time, when T-shirt sales soar. Seasonal attractions also help boost sales from one of the most lucrative demographics for the gift shop: zoo members. Wainscott said members may or may not spend a lot on any given visit, but it all adds up, and they’re more likely to open their wallets for merchandise that’s new and exciting.
Another bonanza for the 1,500-square-foot store: a seasonal grandparent visiting pass, which provides an incentive for older visitors to come often. As everyone knows, grandparents rarely can resist the opportunity to buy a trinket for the grandkids.
At the Smoky Mountain Deer Farm and Exotic Petting Zoo in Seiverville, Tenn., “whether it’s Grandma or Mom, primarily it’s the women who do most of the purchasing,” said Zoo Owner Lynn Hoisington. “Repeat business is pretty high here.” The bulk of retail sales at the attraction come from families with multiple children, so price is critical; most items cost between $7 and $16. “If you have a lot of kids, if you buy for one, you buy for all, or else you don’t buy at all,” explained Hoisington. “So we keep it inexpensive, relative to other places. And we rely on impulse buys: plush, T-shirts, a little glassware, a few magnets here and there, some toys.”
In more than 30 years overseeing the zoo, Hoisington is emphatic that retail takes a back seat to the animals, insisting that her souvenir selection is not a gift shop per se. But even as she resists commercializing the experience, Hoisington allows that the markup on wholesale trinkets contributes significantly to the zoo’s bottom line.
Adventure Aquarium — the premier attraction in Camden, N.J., — is at the opposite end of the gift shop spectrum, with a huge selection of books, toys, shirts and other souvenirs. “A lot of people like our shark plush, because they enjoy our sharks here at the aquarium,” said Gift Shop Supervisor Korye Shepherd. Distinctive aquatic mugs are another top seller, he added: “We have these educational mugs that have facts about the animals; penguins, sharks, and sea turtles are all really popular.
First-time families are the most reliable spenders at the gift shop, taking home a souvenir of their visit, Shepherd said. “All the kids always want a toy, a T-shirt or something to remember the occasion,” he said.