Gone are those prosaic buckets of souvenir gems and minerals. At the redesigned flagship store of Exploratorium, a science museum in San Francisco, shoppers can pick up pieces of hematite, jasper, and rose quartz tumbled stones and spin the mirrored, whirling vortex display at the center. “It’s an exhibit as well as a sales display,” explained Esther Swann, Exploratorium’s merchandise manager. “People go up and want to interact with it.”

That interaction is a popular new strategy among retailers to sell more loose gems and minerals. Longtime staples of gift shops at science museums, cave attractions, and boutiques, semiprecious stones have a timeless appeal and an impulse-friendly price point — starting at $1-5 for small, polished or rough specimens, though larger crystals and geodes can cost well into the three figures.

Mineral bins at the Exploratorium, a science museum in San Francisco, Calif. This sales display is also an exhibit, the store’s merchandise manager said.

Whatever the size and shape, customers are drawn to shiny, richly colored gems — and the most effective displays capture that attention. “We want people to be able to touch stuff; that’s the aesthetic of our museum. We don’t want everything in plastic boxes,” said Swann, who said the interactive vortex display of $1.25 stones puts the loose gem category in her top 100 of sales by unit, despite the inevitable shrinkage that results from such access. 

At the gift shop for Cave of the Mounds, a national natural landmark in Blue Mounds, Wis., Assistant Manager Jan Okeson has found success with the same touch-and-feel philosophy. “We’re like a hybrid shop-museum,” said Okeson, who puts out interactive display-exhibits to sell more under-$5 rocks — a key price point for the school trip demographic. “Our visitors can unearth rocks and fossils in our fossil dig sandbox. They can break open geodes.” 

She said the interactive displays strongly appeal to parents, who love being able to learn alongside their kids “as well as giving them a souvenir.” It also helps to merchandise rocks in fun, kid-friendly activity formats, added Okeson. Some top sellers include kits to make beaded jewelry, gift bags, and mosaics out of loose stones, as well as “excavation” boxes that allow kids to dig up their own mineral treasures. 

Low price point and tactile, educational appeal also makes rocks and minerals a strong seller for children’s toy stores. At Play Kids in an upscale part of Brooklyn, Owner Shelley Kramer cites strong demand for $4.99 bags of loose gemstones, which she merchandises in the 1,000-square-foot store’s science section alongside mineral kits. “The bags of stones we have are with our less expensive stuff, so it’s just pocket money,” Kramer explained. 

To draw in shoppers of all ages, retailers emphasize the variety of gemstones available, with a rock for nearly every taste and budget. At Cave of the Mounds, gems and minerals are displayed on bases, stands and sun catcher fixtures at different levels; stones of different sizes and prices are grouped together, “so the customer doesn’t choose based on price, but falls in love with a certain piece,” Okeson explained. “The big stuff sells the small stuff.” 

Sales of gems and minerals contribute significantly to the $175,000 annual store revenue at Glenwood Caverns Amusement Park in Glenwood Springs, Colo., said Laura VanLue, who manages the gift shop. “My margin I can get on these rocks is at least a 3-4 times markup,” said VanLue, who lists $5.99 gift bags of loose stones as a top seller. “I try to buy in bulk and find vendors who ship for free because it’s a heavy item.”

Like Okeson, VanLue also finds success by grouping items of varying price points, mixing larger and smaller pieces and even manmade or dyed stones. “A 2 by 2 floor display, 4 feet off the ground, is very good for getting attention,” she said. As Glenwood Caverns expands its theme park operations, space for geological souvenirs has been squeezed at the 2,500-square-foot shop — so a 1,000-square-foot stand-alone gem and mineral boutique is planned for within the next year or two to showcase rocks and maximize sales, VanLue said.

At the Exploratorium in San Francisco, gems and minerals are sold at both retail outlets — the main shop, a 3,000-square-foot space with a separate entrance off Pier 15, and a smaller, 1,000-square-foot interior gift shop that is only available to museum patrons. “We get a lot of field trip kids, and that’s generally where they shop,” Swann noted. 

Jan Okeson, assistant manager, Cave of the Mounds National Natural Landmark, Blue Mounds, Wis.”We’re like a hybrid shop-museum,” Okeson said.

Small polished stones, geodes, fossilized trilobites and rough crystals for $1-5 are displayed in buckets throughout the smaller Exploratorium store. Despite fewer interactive exhibits, that space nonetheless generates a disproportionate share of Exploratorium’s combined $2.5 million annual retail sales, Swann said.

Whether science museum, cavern shop or boutique, retailers all report that educating customers is key to increasing sales — so they incorporate signs and informational cards in their displays, labeling each stone with place of origin, hardness and so on. 

“Putting information out is a great way to merchandise,” affirmed another cave retailer, Laura VanLue, who manages the gift shop at Glenwoods Caverns Amusement Park in Glenwood Springs, Colo. “We get a lot of school groups, and teachers will pick out one of every rock listed on a card, for instance.”

School groups don’t usually frequent the New Renaissance Bookshop, a metaphysical retailer in Portland, Ore. But Owner Darlene Potter said educational materials are an essential way to interest customers in gems like black tourmaline, jasper, and quartz. She and husband Jamey rely on a knowledgeable staff to dispense advice and dispense a flyer listing the healing properties of 30 different gemstones. 

“For all stones, at every price point, it’s important for it to be displayed separately and to have a little card with explanations about the healing properties of the stone,” added Potter, whose approach applies even to the $1 stones on a countertop spinner. 

Equally important, at least in an upscale boutique: “Really good lighting,” said Potter, who has owned the 4,200-square-foot store for three decades. “The lighting is so important because you want to catch the glimmer and the shimmer of these stones.” 

Potter spotlights larger gemstones, which retail for $20-500, in a half-dozen standing jewelry cases. Smaller, more modestly priced gems are displayed in little white dishes on triangular shelves, she said. For all her stones, Potter encourages customers to learn, touch and engage — an approach that results in higher sales.

“When people come in, they will ask about stones that are known for their healing or grounding properties,” Potter said. “You give them information, they’ll think about it. And they’ll often come back and buy.”