Despite, or maybe because of, the pandemic, purchasing name-dropped and custom products at zoos is a part of the fun for shoppers eager to see the animals and bring home a souvenir or gift.
At the Roosevelt Park Zoo in Minot, N.D., Public Program Manager Andrea Tronson also manages the gift shop. Her store was closed for a portion of the pandemic but is open again now, during these slower winter months. “Despite that, I would say our name-dropped items sold better than ever. I have a few leftovers from last year, but very few. People were super eager to support the zoo when we reopened.” She speculated that “They wanted to get out and visit when they hadn’t been out for months, and their enthusiasm supported us.”
Her strategy for ordering name-dropped and custom products in 2021 is, as always to “order the bare minimum, and then if an item does well, I put in a pre-order for the following year.” To find the right items for her shop, she said, “It’s always somewhat of a gamble to pick a new name-dropped product, but I look at the high sellers from the year before, and I also do some research into new products. We don’t have a set strategy.”
In Austin, Texas, Kim Sessions, director of administration and the gift shop buyer at the Austin Zoo, related that the zoo closed from the Saturday before spring break until May 31. “We missed our busy Memorial Day weekend, too. So, just because business is slow our per cap is down, but our name-dropped plush always outsells any other product, and that stayed true.” Overall, she said, name-dropped sales were likely “about the same as any year but at a lower percentage. Spring break is normally our busiest week of year and so we had ordered a ton of product. Since we were closed then, we are still selling that same product that normally would have sold in the three-month period we were closed.”
In 2021, Sessions is changing her ordering regimen to some extent. “We are not taking advantage of some of the incentives offered when you order a big dollar amount of items and qualify for free shipping. We are by-passing that and ordering only as needed, and in smaller dollar amounts as well.”
When it comes to picking new items to name-drop, she focuses on new animal arrivals at the zoo. “We have had a few new rescues come in while we were closed, including the white tiger which is unusual and very popular, and a zebra we didn’t have before. So, we are focusing on getting new items to tie in with those animals to name-drop,” she explained. “We had little Austin Zoo vests to go on our stuffed animals that were finished before spring break and the company held them for us when we couldn’t take shipment. We will eventually get the 144 of them in small portions; I bought them already for the white tiger and the lion, and we have actually sold those pretty quickly.” She added that plush is among the most popular items in the gift shop, and that’s an area she will focus on, knowing it will move quickly. The gift shop is currently in the process of moving back inside to an approximately 800-square-foot space after taking products outside earlier during the pandemic.
Crystal Banks, gift shop supervisor at Wildlife Safari in Winston, Ore., has stayed open the entire pandemic. “We opened an outside gift shop, and we had some name-dropped items out there that sold really well. In fact, the outside gift shop sells beyond belief for us. When we were able to open up on the inside, we still had the outside going until winter came, and then we took it down. Inside, things have slowed down,” she noted. “Overall, however, I have only a few leftovers, and those are clearance items that I won’t be reordering. We’re trying to get some new products in, some new, updated fun stuff.” With that in mind, she’s looking for items that are “maybe more practical but still make a nice souvenir. We’re also ordering some brand-new stickers we’ve never had before, and keychains and magnets. Brand-new for us currently are custom blankets that feature our animals on them. They’ve been doing really well for us,” she reported.
Banks selects items to name-drop by looking through catalogs. “I have a team with me when I do, and we decide together what we like, so it’s not all my decision. Teamwork helps me find good items, and it gives you a different perspective. I also have a great relationship with our existing vendors who also put their two-cents in. I have a great team to work with overall,” she said. Plush is not as big a name-dropped item for her gift shop as it is at some other zoo parks. “The only have two plush animals name-dropped with jackets. We do well with name-drop items like magnets and stickers, and our jackets, which are a great seller.”
At World Wildlife Zoo in Litchfield Park, Ariz., Gift Shop Manager April Harper said the zoo closed for five months and only reopened September 3. “Now that we have opened again, we’re doing fantastic, even though we were closed during our busy season. We’ve just made our third reorder in fact, and are doing great with T-shirts and key chains, and plush bobcats. I think because people aren’t going on vacations out of state, they come for a visit and they are buying.”
Her plans for name-dropped items this year includes a goal of getting the zoo’s name or logo on plush items. “Parents do want that, and I’m on the lookout for ways to do it. We tried to order these little wood name tags that have our name on them to put on our merchandise, but it wasn’t quite what I wanted.” Harper finds mood rings with the zoo’s name are hot sellers, as are pins and patches. Like Sessions in Austin, she often picks new name-drop items for the 1,000-square-foot shop based on the zoo’s animals. “We just had a baby giraffe, and we have jaguars and tigers; anything plush and name-dropped for those animals does well.”
Elsewhere in Arizona, at Bearizona in Williams, Gift Shop Manager and Buyer Samantha Haley survived an early 2020 gift shop closing until protocols were implemented to keep staff and customers safe. “We re-opened our gift shop in May 2020. Most guests that come to our park want a souvenir to remind them of their visit to our park. Our name-drop items did exceedingly well, and we sold out of most of them by the end of summer,” she said. “My strategy for ordering name-dropped items for 2021 has been to get orders in early. The market and availability have been a little unpredictable, so keeping in touch with vendors is important for any updates.” Picking new items is all about keeping things fresh for the shop, Haley asserted. “I look for things that are not too similar to current inventory. I select items that are themed to our park and what the guests will see while they are here. When picking plush toys, a simple ribbon around the neck with the name-drop makes it unique to your location. With T-shirts we have found that humor is fun, while also having simple options to cater to different guests.”
Name-dropped items of all kinds are, in short, “zoo-tacular” at animal attractions nationwide.