museums&MORE Summer 2014
C’Mon to Great Explorations

Sunshine state children’s museums stores offer up hot items and cool stuff

Sun-seeking tourists flock to Florida year round, eager to enjoy sand, surf and, perhaps, a dose of Disney. Equally popular with families are the state’s world-class children’s museums that offer respite from the sun and a chance for kids to have some hands-on educational entertainment.

Great Explorations Children’s Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, opened in 1987, and welcomes about 250,000 visitors per year.

In 2003, the museum relocated to its current facility, which features 18,000 square feet of exhibit space, packed with ways for children to learn through creative play and exploration. Interactive exhibits, a preschool, camps, field trips and workshops for parents and caregivers have forged deep roots in the community.

Great Explorations was recently accredited by the American Alliance of Museums — the first children’s museum in Florida to receive this distinction.

The 1,500-square-foot Great Stuff Gift Shop is bright, colorful and stocked with merchandise for kids up to age 10, notes controller Laurel Ginn, who oversees all revenue-generating elements related to the property.

We try to gear about 90 percent of what we order around our role-playing exhibits,” Ginn said. “We have a pizza exhibit and a grocery store, so we sell small Velcro pizzas kids can cut with a pizza cutter, and little shopping carts with fake food.”

One way the museum introduces products is through its staff performing experiments at Explorations Theater with unique, fun products that are also sold in the gift shop.

“Kids come to our museum and get excited about the exhibits, and when they go into the gift shop and see the pizza they just made or the stuffed animal they played with in Pet Vet, they want one,” Ginn said.

Although Ginn does not attend trade shows, she spends a lot of time researching other children’s gift shops and their vendors, plus she relies on her own young sons, aged 7 and 10, to tell her what’s cool. Ginn works extensively with a Toysmith representative to find great new products, including new microscopes and science kits from Thames and Kosmos.

Branded Great Explorations items, such as Touch Tunnel explorer helmets that relate to the museum’s cave exhibit, are especially popular.

“Our cave exhibit is a touch-tunnel — it’s pitch-black and children have to find their way out using senses other than their eyes,” she explained. “We also sell branded umbrellas and stuffed animals wearing Great Expectations T-shirts. We’re thinking of bringing in an entire line of branded items like beach towels and clothing.”

Stop and Shop

Great Stuff also markets itself as a spot for locals to discover hard-to-find toys and science kits.

“A lot of our advertising around the holidays is to tell parents and grandparents that if they’re looking for innovative educational gifts, we carry them,” Ginn said.

Products that fly off Great Stuff’s shelves include ALEX Toys’ Giant Art Jar — stuffed full of pompoms, scrapbook paper, Popsicle sticks, glue, and glitter — and DIY craft kits to make fairy dolls or trinket boxes. Boys love Grossology Science Kits and Backyard Explorer Science Kits, Ginn reported.

To maximize space in the store, Ginn tapped Great Explorations’ exhibit director, Nicole Morelli, who has a degree in interior design and retail space management.

“You’d be surprised how much we fit in here. All of our shelving hugs the wall, and we also have display units that are freestanding,” Ginn said. “Incorporating things that kids used in the exhibit is a great idea. Also, if you have the space, a small play table within the shop where kids can use the toys is great. We sell admission tickets and memberships in our store, so having a table for the kids to play at brings your items to the attention of the parents, and then you’re more likely to sell to them.”

Helping Families Play and Learn Together

At the Golisano Children’s Museum of Naples — nicknamed C’mon — children are encouraged to explore and discover the natural world, said Lindsay Huban, guest services manager.

The two-story 30,000-square-foot museum opened in 2011 and is a LEED-certified green building. Thirteen permanent, hands-on exhibits include an igloo complete with real ice wall and a two-story banyan tree that children can climb. The museum also houses a permanent collection of artifacts and locally made artwork hung at child height.

“One of our exhibits is a beach with a fishing hole, and we sell the exact same wooden fishing poles that the kids use in the exhibit; they come with three magnetic fish and they’re beautifully crafted by My Unique Wooden Toys in Silver Lake, Indiana,” Huban said. “We also carry art supplies similar to the ones we use in our art studio, like Bubber, Play Foam and Plop Plop Polymer.”

At another popular exhibit, the Rocket Room, children can build and launch their own rockets; the kits are available in-store and kids love them, Huban said.

“We also have a hard time keeping Crazy Aaron’s Thinking Putty and Kinetic Sand in stock; we’re the only place in Naples where you can get the putty and it’s amazing: it never dries out; you can tear it or pop it, and if you hit it with a hammer, it shatters like glass and then you can squish it back together,” she said.

Modular shelving helps staff arrange wares in many different ways.

“We try to have a lot of demos out; this way, we can pack the walls pretty full, but customers can still find things and try them out,” Huban said. “We also do something called The 3:30 Surprise: Every day, our educators pull out an activity or a game and play with the kids. That’s a really neat way for us to merchandise items and show off our coolest stuff.”

Museum board members are especially helpful in suggesting items to carry in-store, Huban added. “They travel often, and bring me samples of toys from everywhere; it’s a real team effort.”

In the three years since opening its doors, Huban’s team has learned several important lessons.

“Have a variety of price points. You’ve got to have something for the kids on field trips who have a crumpled $1 bill in their pocket, and something for Grandma and Grandpa who are happy to spend $200,” she said. “Also, rearranging is key; every other week, we completely rearrange the store, and you hear people say, ‘I’ve never seen this before!’ and you just smile. It’s amazing how important it is to keep things fresh.”

By Wendy Helfenbaum

Special to Museums & More

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