National Aquarium, located in Baltimore, Maryland, offers visitors an amazing interactive experience. Located right on the harbor, people who visit also have the opportunity to explore the area all around the aquarium, and in the warmer seasons even have the opportunity to attend an Orioles game, as the stadium is in walking distance. Visitors view sea life up close — from the interactive dolphin show to the live shark exhibit.
Event Network is National Aquarium’s retail partner and it delivers a complete shopping experience for guests that is a seamless extension of their visit. Rick Turner, store director for National Aquarium Gift Shop, explained that Event Network is focused on operating an exceptional, high-volume retail environment. This includes guest experience, custom creation, product curation and more.
Overall the destination attracts 1.2 million guests each year, and Turner said most of them will explore the stores. “Streamlining retail operations and maximizing its potential makes good business sense, since a portion of our proceeds go back to the Aquarium,” he said. “The more visitors shop, the more the Aquarium is able to reinvest in crucial programs that support its mission.”
Guests may shop in three retail settings. “The large main gift shop, located at the top of the escalator just past the main entrance, is called the Aquarium shop. The two themed shops are called the Dolphin shop (located in the Dolphin Discovery area on Pier 4) and the Shark shop (located on Pier 3 behind the Blacktip Reef exhibit),” he said. The Aquarium and Dolphin Shops are open all year, but the Shark Shop is open weekends and during summer hours.
“The National Aquarium is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to inspire conservation of the world’s aquatic treasures,” said Turner. “Upholding these important values, the stores not only offer beautiful underwater themes, but were designed according to a set of ocean conscious sustainability initiatives. For example, the stores are a 100% plastic-free environment. We use eco-friendly LED lights, and purposefully rearranged the stores to allow more natural daylight to conserve energy.”
He also explained there are many eco-friendly details in the stores: use of zero-VOC paints, materials from FSC certified sources, and sourcing products with vendors that support sustainable manufacturing and ocean clean-up efforts. The store signs even utilize recycled material and depict how product is created, which encourages guests to be more eco-friendly.
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Turner also provided museums&MORE answers to questions regarding product sourcing, operations, best-sellers, and more.
MM: What are your best-sellers and who do you source your merchandise from?
RT: With the amount of families and children that visit, some of our best sellers include our dolphin plush as well as our eco-friendly merchandise, or items that promote conservation and sustainability. 4Ocean bracelets and reusable National Aquarium bags are also big sellers. About two-thirds of the guests visit from out of state, so apparel and accessories that feature the National Aquarium’s logo and pay homage to Baltimore City and the State of Maryland are also very popular. We prioritize suppliers based on their eco-friendly manufacturing practices and support for conservation.
MM: Do you offer customized products? If so, what do you offer in this category?
RT: Yes, a good number of items are customized, from souvenirs, apparel, accessories and home accents.
MM: What categories sell best in the stores (i.e. plush, apparel, jewelry, toys)?
RT: Our top selling departments are plush, apparel, souvenirs and toys.
MM: How do you incorporate the experience of the National Aquarium into the gifts available in the store and online? Do you sell any items that specifically reinforce an exhibit or event held on premises?
RT: The great thing about the National Aquarium is that there’s always something new – from exhibits, to programs, milestones achieved and new births! A portion of the product and merchandise celebrates what is happening, marking a special time and place. These types of commemorative items become treasured keepsakes. The shops offer items that reflect the exhibits, the animals, and the conservation-centered mission of the National Aquarium.
MM: What is your favorite item in the store right now and why?
RT: Drawdown – the most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming – is a book that outlines 100 solutions to global warming and it is among my favorite items in the store.
MM: What are some of the challenges you face in terms of management, inventory and product buying?
RT: We are limited in storage capacity, so we have an off-site warehouse to store additional merchandise to make sure we are staying in stock and replenishing our top sellers, which adds a layer of complexity logistically, but it has worked for us.
MM: What have you tried from a management standpoint that was very successful for the store?
RT: A management decision I made early in my tenure at the National Aquarium gift store was to have open communication and training practices with my leadership team. After I was trained on an area of operations, I would then train my leadership team in that area as well. I separated operations in the store into areas and had each member of the team focus on that initiative for a quarter of the year and then switched roles for the next quarter. This rotating training method allowed each team member to become a specialist in one initiative and then help train each other in a new initiative when the roles were changed. This promotes team member growth and education.
MM: Are there any other guidelines you can share about how you operate such successful stores?
RT: Training and empowering our guest service team is the key to success at the National Aquarium gift stores. Event Network has an effective training program that helps fuel our team’s success, enabling and supporting growth of our team members both professionally and personally. We also have a rewards and recognition program in place that helps create a fun work environment while motivating team members.
MM: Do you have any other tips to share with retailers?
RT: Empower your team members and help them build individual skill sets based on their natural aptitudes, but also encourage them to try new things – you will see a drastic increase in productivity in the store.