museums&MORE Summer 2010
Deep Sea Sales

Atmosphere and unique selection help Virginia Aquarium gift shops seal the retail deal

By Abby Heugel, Managing Editor

What makes someone purchase a gift in the Water’s Edge Gift Shop at the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center in Virginia Beach, Va.?

Maybe it’s the 155 iridescent fish swimming” above their head in four deep blue pools of light, the spinner racks that look like giant seaweed or the wind chimes dangling from a mussel and barnacle covered piling. Maybe as they walk the floor covered in a mossy green and pale teal patterned carpet it’s a piece of art that seals the deal…or just the seal, itself?

“One of our unique items is the collection of ‘Seal Signature’ paintings,” said Ruth Ann Steenburgh, director of retail operations. “Our five harbor seals love to paint pictures for our guests, so we sell those in our stores. All of the proceeds from these paintings go directly to the Seal Enrichment program, so in order to enhance our offerings we produced Seal Signature T-shirts, coffee mugs and postcards — all displayed in a window just as you enter the store.”

When looking to shop at the aquarium, visitors aren’t limited to just one store, as the Fiddler’s Cove is located approximately 1/3 of a mile from Water’s Edge, the two stores joined by a nature trail.

While the Water’s Edge store is a bit larger and features merchandise related to the ocean and the Chesapeake Bay, the Fiddler’s Cove store has items found in Virginia’s Salt Marsh. They have logoed items in both stores with similar price points, offering something for everyone — from elegant to educational and everything in between.

Marine Mission
The Virginia Aquarium’s mission statement is to increase the public’s knowledge and appreciation of Virginia’s marine environment and to inspire commitment to preserve its existence. The mission for the stores, prominently posted, is to provide financial support by furthering the educational experience through the sale of quality merchandise and providing exceptional customer service to the guests. This starts at the top.

“My own professional background started as a dental assistant, and as a Navy wife I caught the “retail bug” volunteering in a retail shop in Hawaii run by the Submarine Wives Club,” Steenburgh said. “I started my paying retail career with Sears in Hawaii as a department manager/Hawaiian wear buyer for three years, and then we were transferred to my home town of Virginia Beach where I joined a local department store chain as a store manager.”

When there was discussion about building a Marine Science Center in Virginia Beach, Steenburgh jumped at the chance to put her hat in the ring as the gift shop/admissions manager. Now the director of retail operations, she completed her 25th year at the aquarium in May and has seen many changes in her tenure — including the remodel of Water’s Edge.

“The remodel of our Water’s Edge store really wasn’t in the master plan,” Steenburgh explained. “Our original aquarium was built in 1986 and we had an addition in 1996, when the Fiddler’s Cove store was added, along with another entire building. It was decided in 2006 that the 1986 section needed to be refurbished, so a plan was put into place.”

When looking over the drawings one day with the head curator and the architect, Steenburgh asked, “Where is the exit going to be?” When they started to explain a convoluted route around the admissions desk, she suggested moving the store and putting the exit through Water’s Edge itself.

So they took to remodeling and moving the larger aquarium store with two goals in mind — they wanted the exit through the store and they wanted the store to look like a continuation of the whole aquarium experience.

“My goal was to have the store look like another part of the exhibit space, so we incorporated the ‘underwater theme,'” Steenburgh said. “Hence the 155 iridescent fish hanging in pools from the ceiling, the spinner racks that look like sea grass and the wind chime rack that looks like a barnacle encrusted piling.”

Although the new store is actually 40 feet smaller than the old store, every inch is “sellable” space. Steenburgh said that product placement plays a big part in that, and she is trying to reduce SKUs and streamline products. Regardless, the week that the exit opened through the store, sales went up 15 percent and have stayed that way. Sales in the Fiddler’s Cove store have remained about the same, mainly because the new renovation has been the big attraction for the Bay and Ocean Pavilion.

Pendants, Plush and Postcards
A big attraction in both stores are local products, as Steenburgh said guests love having something that was actually made right there in Virginia Beach. With something for everyone, they offer merchandise from 29 cents to over $1,000, with merchandise kept looking fresh and interesting by a staff that loves to change displays.

They have a large jewelry counter in the center of the Water’s Edge store with items priced from $1.95 to $1,500. Although the main jewelry customers are women, Steenburgh said men have told her that they can always find something a little different for that special someone.

“By sheer volume, postcards are our top seller, but overall jewelry and plush account for the biggest volume in dollars,” Steenburgh said. “Having talked to some of my fellow aquarium buyers, jewelry seems to be the trend for all of us, and of course, up selling is always part of the sales plan.”

Plush are always part of the sales plan as well, being the favorite item for children of all ages, and it’s either the weirder or the cuddlier the better in Virginia. They opened a new permanent exhibit entitled Restless Planet that called for some unusual merchandise, mainly Komodo dragons and tomistomas, and those have been flying off the shelves. But Steenburgh added that the cuddly dolphin and turtle will always be constant best sellers.

Because the entire aquarium itself is “green” and certified by the state of Virginia, it’s of great importance that they strive to have as many “green” items for sale as possible. All of this merchandise is displayed on its own rack with ample signage telling about the way the merchandise helps the planet.

“I try to keep my sales staff abreast of all the information I have about the merchandise we sell,” Steenburgh said, “and we’ve done presentations to our entire aquarium staff on the recycled and biodegradable merchandise.”

They started with their “Sandy Recycles” reusable tote, sold for just above cost at $1.79, and then added shirts and socks made of bamboo, soy and organic cotton. Biodegradable bottles and piggy banks are a new best seller, while paper products made of elephant pooh are unique and sell well, too. They also brought in some plush animals made from recycled plastic bottles.

“I see vendors regularly and attend several gift shows during the year, looking for merchandise that relates to what we have on exhibit,” Steenburgh said. “I set high standards for authenticity and quality.”

So whether it’s a recyclable postcard or an exhibit-inspired ensemble, shoppers are guaranteed to find something authentic to accent their aquarium experience and “seal” the retail deal.

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