By June Allan Corrigan
The recent period of zoo closures has been difficult all around. Difficult for the facilities themselves as well as support businesses who have lost revenue, difficult for individuals and certainly families with time on their hands who might have wanted to visit – it’s even been tough on the animals who miss the daily interaction with people, according to many expert reports. For this article, officials from two zoo retail operations and a store manager from a nature organization shop talked about the steps they’ve taken or will soon be taking to reopen. They also considered what the future of their stores will look like moving forward.
Cameron Park Zoo in Waco, Texas re-opened on May 29th. Just prior to re-opening, Guest Services Manager Michele Schulz revealed the Zootique Gift Shop would be moving all operations outside. Ditto for the zoo’s two cafes plus its wheelchair/electric cart rentals. “Adhering to restrictions put in place by the governor, our indoor areas aren’t going to be open right way. All of my retail operations are moving outside to a tent!” The tents will be open-sided, so they are actually more like canopies. ““We’ll have one canopy outside each café and one outside the store. Guest services will be outside too, renting wagons and wheelchairs as well as sanitizing them.”
Schulz plans on featuring the more popular items from her 3,400-square-foot store under the canopy. “We can always run inside the adjacent shop if someone wants something not outside.” Other than perhaps selling a few more hats and sunglasses, she doesn’t anticipate much in the way of merchandise adjustments at this time. “I think that while our circumstances have changed, people haven’t. They’re really ready for the zoo to reopen and their kids still love the same toys they’ve always loved before the pandemic.”
At the same time, Schulz is realistic about decreased revenue. “We’re waiting to see what happens. A lot of people were out of work and it could really have an impact on our sales. But we’re hoping for positive things and will be glad for whatever comes our way. We’re just happy for people to get back in here. It has been a long couple of months.” Visitors will likely get a kick out of the cute T-shirts Cameron Park Zoo has had designed and made up for staff to wear upon re-opening. A raccoon has been designated as the new mascot for pandemic-related signage. “Because raccoons wear a mask and are always washing their hands,” Schulz explained. “So, staff will wear T-shirts featuring the raccoon mascot plus the words Cameron Park Zoo Social Distancing Officer.” Who knows? She figures if they prove popular enough, she might just have to order up some to sell to the public at large!
At press time, the San Diego Zoo in San Diego, Calif., and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in nearby Escondido remained closed. “When the state of California allows both to reopen, we will be taking every precaution to secure the safety of guests, animals and team members,” said Yvonne Miles, the corporate director of merchandising and publishing. Initially, merchandise will be provided outdoors at kiosks. “When we’re allowed to open indoor spaces, we’ll do so and follow all of our own safety protocols and of course, government guidelines,” she added. Some of those guidelines include limiting the number of guests entering the 2,000-square-foot main Zoo entrance store or exiting the approximately 11,000-square-foot Zootique and Kids Store based on government persons per square footage calculations. There will be 6-foot distance markers at all store exterior entrance points and point of purchase locations. The latter will also feature Plexiglas safety shields. Signage will be plentiful communicating safety reminders such as “Please handle only if purchasing.” Employees will be required to sanitize their hands after each cash transaction and credit card stations after each use.
The San Diego Zoo plans to sanitize all incoming gift shop orders before placing them in storage or on display. All purchases must be placed in bags the store provides or go unbagged – no guest bags will be allowed. Registers will be spaced six feet apart as a means of maximizing both employee and customer safety and store floor displays will also be thinned to allow for easy access and social distancing. Directional arrows on the floor will aid guest traffic patterns. Guests will not be permitted to try on clothing as all dressing rooms will be closed. All sales will be final with no returns being offered at this time.
“During the first phase of re-opening, and pending restrictions, San Diego Zoo stores may open with limited outdoor retail locations offering sundries which include face masks, sanitizers, hats, suntan lotion, apparel, toys, and souvenirs,” Miles said. Adjustments to product selection will be made during this time. “The next phase of our opening may be limited stores, main entrance and exit stores. That period will entail one-way-in, one-way-out directional mapping which will include limiting the number of guests in the stores. Preparation is under way to have all stores ready to open once approval is received,” she concluded.
The Seattle Audubon Nature Shop in Seattle, Wash., reopened for curbside pickup on May 15th and plans to continue this method of operation for the foreseeable future. “Our shop is staffed by volunteers, the vast majority of whom are aged 65 and over,” explained Manager David Manuel Garcia. “In addition to following the public health recommendations for businesses, we’re also trying to be as aware as we can of higher risk populations. Therefore, our executive director has also issued guidance that we are not to resume any volunteer activities until the public health officials have deemed it safe.” Washington state recommended that people over the age of 65 or with underlying health conditions continue to stay home as much as possible.
Optic sales have traditionally been one of the Seattle Audubon Nature Shop’s larger revenue sources. However, selling binoculars and spotting scopes for birdwatching typically benefits from an in-person component. “We offer a really unique shopping experience in optics as we have experts who take people outside to our little demonstration garden to look at birds and plants to get a real feel of what it would be like to use those binoculars in the field,” Garcia said. The Nature Shop is still figuring out how to do this safely at the present time. “We’re looking at the possibility of handling shopping for optics by appointment.” Meanwhile, sales of large bags of wild bird seed have resumed. The bird seed was simply too costly to ship during their pandemic closure period which spanned March 25th to May 15th, but now that curbside service is in place, people are stopping by to pick up bags. Jigsaw puzzles continue to be extremely popular and the store has a vast array. The shop also held a virtual author event to promote a local author’s book and as a result, processed a lot of online sales. “Looking ahead, we are going to start leaning on virtual author events more heavily as a way to promote some of the books we have. The shop has a really nice book display section,” Garcia concluded.