(Three of the displays in this story were provided by Cool Jewels of Hallandale, Fla.) If you’re looking for a bright spot amid the coronavirus pandemic — some sign that our old way of life still exists — look no further than the jewelry counters at zoo stores. When SGN spoke to retailers in July, everyone interviewed reported that jewelry sales remained strong and tastes had not changed in any significant way. Children still beg their parents for mood rings to go with their souvenir plush, and parents are still happy to buy.
“We’ll have the same stuff we always had this year, and we’ve sold just as much if not more this season so far,” said Jen Strunk, retail manager and buyer at the Binder Park Zoo in Battle Creek, Mich. The zoo operates seasonally, and when it reopened later than usual due to COVID-19, “it was crazy busy right from the start,” Strunk reported.
Since the Binder Park zoo clientele is largely families with children, the popular jewelry selection is geared towards younger tastes — and budgets. “It’s not like Macy’s, not expensive stuff,” said Strunk. “The kids really love giraffes made out of sparkly rhinestones, mood jewelry, things like that.”
This is Strunk’s first year buying for the shop; in a nod to modern tastes, she is eyeing new pieces from a fair trade company that sources artisan products from countries like Ecuador and Kenya. “I’ve been trying to find more merchandise like that — things that are different, not just factory made stuff you can find anywhere,” Strunk said.
Jewelry priced under $10 is a hit with family is visiting the John Ball Zoo gift shop in Grand Rapids, Mich. “We’ve got a ton of merchandise at that price point, which is good for kids,” said Store Supervisor Liam Tomko-Watterworth. Sales of rings, bracelets, and necklaces featuring animal charms as well as hearts and other symbols were strong before the pandemic and continue to do well, he said. “Mood necklaces, we’ve got a ton of that,” he said. For adults, $50 sterling silver rings are a popular and affordable splurge.
“We really haven’t made any changes,” said Tomko-Watterworth. Not to the inventory, perhaps — but as at many zoo and aquarium gift shops, much of John Ball Zoo’s retail action has moved outside to allay guests’ anxiety about possible contagion in enclosed spaces. As a precaution, no more than 20 shoppers are allowed at one time inside the relatively large gift shop, and many prefer to browse in the open air rather than wait in line to enter at socially distanced intervals.
Since jewelry is small and harder to keep track of, it typically remains indoors at the zoo and aquarium shops that have adopted the hybrid indoor/outdoor model. That’s why there aren’t many rings and earrings for sale right now at the Saginaw Children’s Zoo gift shop, whose indoor space has closed. “We have to prioritize what works outdoors,” explained Visitor Services Manager Megan Beneker. “And as a smaller zoo, we have to pick and choose.” She noted that plush, which always had the sales edge over jewelry in her store, is easier to merchandise and keep track of outdoors.
Jewelry sales at the Saginaw zoo were steady before the pandemic forced a shift in retail operations. Stretchy bracelets featuring natural stones and recycled materials sold well last year, but with delayed shipments and an uncertain supply chain, Beneker still hadn’t received this year’s order as of mid-July. If there’s an upside to the situation, it’s that the new outdoor retail area is impossible to avoid, even for patrons who would have ordinarily skipped the indoor gift shop. “Now that we are outside, they kind of have to pass by us, so things are going pretty well considering the situation,” Beneker said.
Jewelry was never a top category at the Aquarium of Boise, where a mostly juvenile clientele bought more toys than baubles. ”Jewelry was never a quick seller here,” said Lyla Workman, gift shop manager. To generate interest, she looks for earrings and pendants that feature aquatic and coastal motifs, which are more likely to sell as souvenirs.
But sales of mood rings and earrings was stable until last spring’s three-month COVID closure. Ever since, Workman has been hesitant to change the store’s inventory, given the ongoing uncertainty around the pandemic. That’s especially true for the mood rings that sell briskly in summer, but tend to be less popular the rest of the year. “We don’t know if we’re going to have to close down again,” Workman said.
Mood jewelry is a hit with the kids at Central Florida Zoo in Seminole, said Gift Shop Assistant Manager Mary Norris. Their parents, meanwhile, are more likely to buy more refined pieces featuring tropical materials like abalone. Norris credits the store’s continued success with jewelry to the appealing counter displays, which she said work better than floor-mounted fixtures to attract the eyes of customers.
And so far, even amid a difficult pandemic summer in Florida, the shop does about as well as it ever has, both with jewelry and other merchandise. “I don’t see much difference in sales,” Norris affirmed.