Local flavor. It’s the secret sauce for selling more souvenirs at public lands partner stores, according to the nonprofit associations that oversee retail. “Visitors often come in and say, ‘What’s made locally?’ ” reported Mikan Gosuico, director of operations for the Tahoe Heritage Foundation, which operates two retail outlets around Lake Tahoe, Calif.
Souvenirs with an authentic sense of place are clearly at the top of most shopper’s lists — and a priority for retailers as well. Local, of course, can refer to anything from an item’s design to the artisan who created it, the manufacturer who produced it, even the branding on an apparel item.
At the Tahoe Heritage Foundation stores, one top-selling souvenir hits all those marks. A 16-year-old Tahoe boy crafts laser-cut wooden ornaments in the shape of Lake Tahoe, embellished with California imagery, Gosuico said. Art prints and magnets also sell well, she added, and the shops’ best-selling jewelry item is a pair of delicate earrings featuring the alder cone, a regional variant on a pine cone.
“That local hook is important,” affirmed Shawn Eisele, the executive director at Juneau, Alaska-based Discovery Southeast, which recently re-opened a 350-square-foot gift shop with the Forest Service at Mendenhall Glacier in the Tongas National Forest. At least 75 percent of the shop’s merchandise is local in some way, Eisele said — and that’s why it sells.
One best-seller is a $10 art photography book full of gorgeous Alaska landscapes, “designed with the cruise ship price point in mind,” explained Eisele of its appeal for tourists. “It’s very educational, it’s very high quality, it’s targeted exactly at what people saw, and it’s priced right.”
Virtually all the shop’s jewelry is made in southeastern Alaska, Eisele said, and it all ties into nearby sights and experiences. Popular blue crystal earrings and necklaces reference the ice-blue glacier, he said, lending even jewelry an educational sheen.
“Something like that just ties people to a place where they have a sublime experience, where they felt connected to the wild — and connects it to a piece they’ll wear every day,” Eisele explained, adding that he sells more jewelry by displaying it in eye-catching lighting. “Our mission is connecting people to nature.”
Other top-selling jewelry for Discovery Southeast includes laser-etched wood and metal styles featuring designs from the indigenous Tlingit people, he said, which are popular souvenirs for being unique to Southeast Alaska. “People buy more of it, honestly, than the items at a lower price point,” Eisele said. “The local connection sells well when we engage the visitor, but they’re also legitimately beautiful pieces of jewelry.”
At the 15 retail outlets of the Black Hills Parks & Forests Association in Hot Springs, S.D., resin pendants are adorned with Dakota bighorn sheep. The $14.95 necklaces, which hang from a nylon cord, are jewelry best-sellers because shoppers love the distinctive local imagery, according to Executive Director Patty Ressler. “The animals on the necklaces are in a natural-type setting, standing on a rock,” she explained.
Like many public lands retailers, Ressler said a top sales tip is to link souvenirs to sights. “People absolutely love our local bison herd, and we’ve brought in a whole line of bison products and they sell really, really well,” she said, citing T-shirts, jewelry and plush. “Animals that people don’t usually see, they tend to get enamored of, and those tend to drive purchases.”
In Lake Tahoe, Mikan Gosuico has noticed the same phenomenon with sales of bear souvenirs. “People buy what they see,” she said. “We have a lot of bears in California, and if they see a bear, then they’ll buy anything with a bear on it as a souvenir, whether it’s an ornament or a stuffed animal.”
Shawn Eisele offered another tip: Sell souvenirs that capture visitors’ unique experience. Random pictures of glaciers don’t sell at his Mendenhall Glacier gift shop, he said — but $6 magnets with “a view of the glacier, from the vantage point they had, is a meaningful connection to what they saw here,” he added.
For nature lovers, those meaningful connections often come in the form of practical souvenirs like maps, hiking guides and books. “The guidebooks that are pertinent to our specific area are definitely some of the more popular sellers,” said Michael Myers, executive director of Friends of Black Rock-High Rock, which operates a 1,500-square-foot retail space within the Gerlach, Nev., visitor center for the Black Rock Desert and High Rock Canyon.
Myers said he sells more Nevada guidebooks and branded T-shirts by displaying in an attractive, open space. “I think placement is really key,” he noted of the shop, which targets visitors headed to the Burning Man festival as well as hikers and naturalists. “We mix things up and change things around, so people can see and interact with it easily.”
Maps and guidebooks are particularly popular in the vast public lands out West, where GPS signals falter and cellphones are unreliable. “Because this area is so broad and so widespread, people are looking for maps to direct them through it,” explained Kenneth Sizemore, executive director at the Dixie/Arizona Strip Interpretative Association, who said hard-copy maps, hiking guides and natural history books are the top souvenirs at the organization’s gift shops.
Smokey Bear merchandise runs a close second, Sizemore said; the Arizona Strip — so named because the Colorado River isolates it from the rest of the state — is a fire-prone desert. But without what he calls “a marquee attraction” like the Grand Canyon to sell T-shirts and magnets, Myers said the Strip’s retail sales rely on inventory with a strong local angle. “It’s definitely that local tie that brings people in,” he said.
While area connections are a draw everywhere, price varies as a factor. The visitors to the Strip Interpretative Association’s 2,500-square-foot flagship store in St. George, Utah, are drawn to the artisan-crafted Native American jewelry not because it is cheap, Sizemore said — at $75 and up, the turquoise-and-silver pieces are a true investment — but because they are heirloom mementos.
But in South Dakota, Patty Ressler said she sells more souvenirs — including branded T-shirts — by pricing them under $20. Her top items right now are pressed pennies and tokens, which retail for just 99 cents; plush bison, elk, and prairie dogs are just $10-15. “And pins and patches are still our bread and butter, basically, and those are at the $5 mark,” she said.