Shedd Aquarium

Gift Shop Plus Spring 2022
Adventurous Retail By Debbie Eisele

Pandemic-famous penguins celebrated with Shedd Aquarium merchandise

Like many cultural institutions, Shedd Aquarium in Chicago had to adapt during the pandemic closures. In a highly successful move, the marketing department teamed up with its animal care givers and created a digital experience for the public and its penguins to enjoy. 

Shedd Aquarium created adventures of its oldest penguin, Wellington, which were then shared on social media and provided virtual experiences for the public — he became an Internet sensation! Wellington’s popular “field trips” enabled him and companions to explore not only other animal habitats within the aquarium, but also Chicago landmarks. 

Photo courtesy of Shedd Aquarium.

“The penguin outings started as enrichment activities for the penguins – and the marketing team used the adorable interactions to amplify the amazing work being done. The activities definitely reminded everyone just how special these animals are and how important it is to care for them and our planet,” Melissa Million, store director for Shedd Aquarium, said. 

Pandemic Successes 

“The penguins’ adventures also reminded us that successful merchandising is never a ‘set it and forget it’ prospect, rather, it is a dynamic process that is reimagined all the time to celebrate everything that is unique and special about Shedd,” she noted. 

Shedd Aquarium Where's Wellington Campaign T-shirt display
Where’s Wellington Campaign T-shirts on display, along with Wellington himself! Photo courtesy of Event Network.

Million explained that Wellington’s field trips resulted in a “Where’s Wellington” campaign, which included custom apparel that offered t-shirts made from “6 ½ recycled plastic bottles.” 

“The apparel line was a wonderful way for fans of Wellington and Shedd Aquarium to show their support during this challenging time. The Where’s Wellington product assortment was really a blueprint for what was to come,” she explained. 

Special Collections 

There are two main shops, two smaller stores and a seasonal pop-up shop, which most recently featured sustainable gift giving for the holidays, at Shedd Aquarium according to Million. 

Shedd Aquarium display
Photo courtesy of Event Network.

The retail settings are all about educating, inspiring and sharing stories about animals and the ocean. “The store utilizes larger than life displays – such as the giant octopus, and a life-size kayaking adventure—to capture the attention and imagination of guests,” Million described. “Upholding the Aquarium’s commitment to sustainability, the store environments are also single-use plastic-free, and operate using sustainable materials and practices.” 

The stores offer a range of merchandise — eco-friendly plush, custom apparel and accessories, books, toys, art, and of course, sustainable lifestyle products “that offer alternatives to single-use plastics in our daily routines,” she shared. 

Shedd Aquarium
The gift shop features a conservation mission wall. Photo courtesy of Event Network.

Shedd Aquarium’s leadership works closely with the retail team to curate a product mix that reflects its commitment to sustainability and events or programs at the aquarium itself. “We celebrate the animals, but also work with the marketing team to identify opportunities to further support conservation messaging and enhance the aquarium’s programming and events to make the product offering more customized and special,” Million elaborated. 

Custom merchandise is constantly being introduced. “For example, this past June a special collection was created to celebrate diversity during Pride month. This is just one of many examples,” she said. 

Shedd Aquarium Penguin Pride
Penguin Pride merchandise. Photo courtesy of Event Network.

As a result of the Where’s Wellington campaign, Million shared that retail stores now offer new, custom collections throughout the year “to ensure the merchandise stays of-the-moment, and reflects animal species that deserve attention.” One popular item is a bundled gift option, a custom rescue kit that includes a toy and a small plush animal. 

Pop-Up Retail

Quarterly, Shedd Aquarium offers a pop-up shop to showcase new messages and products that relate to a featured message. The free-standing shops offer themes such as “Gifts That Give Back” and highlight products with a charitable giving aspect. Examples of these efforts include the Conscious Step sock line and Dorsal bracelets. This spring, the pop-up shop will offer penguin-focused merchandise to support a new book, Edward and Annie: A Penguin Adventure, which features the famous Shedd Aquarium penguins.

Shedd Aquarium give-back pop-up shop
Pop-up shops provide an opportunity to give back. Photo courtesy of Event Network.

Tell a Story

Merchandising techniques include themes and product groupings that tell a story. “Our goal with visual merchandising is to increase understanding around important topics such as conservation, sustainability, and compassion for our animals. Items displayed together will share a common theme or support a specific cause,” she said.

“We are constantly updating visual merchandising displays to showcase what is currently happening at the Aquarium,” she shared. The retail team also keeps the environments fresh with new and unique items that tie into the happenings of the aquarium.

Shedd Aquarium
This display tells a story about the respect for nature. Photo courtesy of Event Network.

The stores implement the largest display updates during March, a time in which it prepares for the spring break travel season. Another merchandising refresh occurs in June, ahead of the summer visitors.

Shedd Aquarium
Merchandising reflects local artist Lisa McCormick. Photo courtesy of Event Network.

“While these product resets are happening, this is also where we tend to make changes to some of our collections or introduce artist collaborations,” Million detailed.

The retail team consistently has created a symbiotic relationship with the marketing team that benefits both its sales and the aquarium itself.


For those interested in viewing Wellington’s penguin adventures, you can visit his field trips on YouTube or search #whereswellington on Shedd Aquarium’s social media platforms. Some of the YouTube videos include: 

Wellington the rockhopper meets the belugas

Four magellanic penguins storm the field at Chicago’s Soldier Field

The Shedd Aquarium Penguins Meet the Sea Otters

Debbie Eisele

Debbie Eisele is the former managing editor for Gift Shop Plus, Stationery Trends and a variety of special issue publications, including: The Guide, Holiday Shop, Celebrations & Occasions and Waterfront Living.

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