museums&MORE Summer 2008
Educational Adventures

Although Bill Lucey, director of RainForest Adventures Discovery Zoo, may not have coined the phrase, he has made it his mission to both educate and entertain those who walk through the doors of his indoor zoo in Sevierville, Tenn.

RainForest Adventures takes its role in edutainment very seriously,” said Lucey, a Zoos & Aquarium Buyers Group (ZAG) member. “We look for like-minded suppliers, as well as other zoos, museums and aquariums that share our passion.”

When you walk through the doors, the first place you will find yourself is in the 2,800-square-foot gift shop, giving you the first taste of the tropical adventure look and feel of RainForest Adventures. A heavy emphasis on an ancient ruins theme for the exhibits is carried over to the walls of tropical plush, racks of souvenir apparel and shelves of rainforest discovery tools. Sustainability is a strong goal of RainForest Adventures, and the staff tries hard to maximize that unique opportunity, encouraging visitors to look at the products from an environmental point of view.

It’s a highly competitive retail environment with tourism in the Smoky Mountains, so Lucey focuses on the unique niche of animal and zoo-related products to position his story apart from the generic items offered at a majority gift shops and retail stores in the Smokies. The ubiquitous black bear related gift merchandise found in virtually all other stores in the Smokies has a very small presence at RainForest.

“Instead, we focus on merchandise and themes unique to our zoo that are not replicated literally hundreds of times in the retail and tourist related businesses in the Smokies,” Lucey explained. “Eco-friendly and ‘message’ products that both entertain and educate the guests are the highlight of the store.”

Sales in the Smokies
RainForest is an indoor zoo featuring primarily unique inhabitants of the world’s tropical rainforests that are not normally displayed in major U.S. zoos, (i.e. Coatimundi,
Serval, Kinkajou, Sugar Gliders etc.) so the product selection is distinctive as well.

Unique products that are age- and gender-specific perform well, given the dynamic of a tourist family on vacation. Lucey estimated that the gift shop per caps at RainForest run above average compared to other zoos, based primarily on the fact that a family on vacation is more likely to spend discretionary income on souvenirs than a family visiting their local zoo several times per year.

With a location in a tourist market such as the Smokies, it allows Lucey to cross sell both RainForest and general Smoky Mountain products. As a result of that, adult and youth clothing round out the top sellers.

“In terms of gross dollars, plush toys continue to run over 30 percent of gross with all five of the top skus being sold as plush,” Lucey said. “Both clothing and plush take up a large foot print in the gift shop and we pride ourselves on strong relationships with our primary vendors for plush and clothing. Fiesta has been a great partner in this category,
as they have an extremely wide variety of both realistic as well as whimsical product.”

New species of animals are added on an annual basis — providing for both marketing and merchandising opportunities, as well as the traditional educational role. Merchandise related to the birth of baby animals can be exceptionally profitable, albeit very difficult to predict the timing and success of births.

“Being able to react on short notice to new births with a great sense of urgency in purchasing and merchandising often results in incremental income and an increase in per caps,” Lucey said.

A Natural Choice
Although Lucey is encouraged by the recent interest in green-themed products, he would love to see this trend develop. However, it does seem that serious educational challenges must be met before the mainstream buyer is ready to embrace the product.

“Often times mass-produced products are available at such a significantly discounted retail price to sustainably produced (or fair trade) product that the premium seems unjustified to the buyer,” Lucey said. “Additionally, the mass-produced product often times comes with professionally produced graphics and POP support material that is well thought out and specifically targets the correct demographic.”

This is rarely the case with the green product. By their very nature the eco-friendly companies are often doing wonderful things with their stated missions, but rarely come from a mass merchandising background that would provide the experience and frame work to effectively package and promote their products, Lucey explained.

“It is certainly our hope that a successful marriage of product, demand and presentation comes together in the near future to move this desperately needed agenda
forward,” he said.

In an effort to move this environmental agenda forward, the zoo continues to improve the products offered, demand and presentation. Approximately 85,000 people walk through the indoor zoo annually, with school field trip season (March through May) and the primary tourist season of June through early August being the busiest time. The number of employees varies greatly with season and is heavily dependent on the traditional tourist seasons for the bulk of visitors. College help and other seasonal employees are hired on an as-needed basis to ensure proper coverage is available.

“A core of seasoned veterans acts as mentors and trainers for seasonal staff,” Lucey said. “Best practices learned over years in retail management allow us to deliver a great experience for our guests on a daily basis.”

The consistency of the tourism market, fresh merchandising and having the courage to try products that may seem out of the ordinary for a zoo gift shop have kept sales at a very acceptable level. Annually, Lucey and his wife, Jeanne, attend both of the Smoky Mountain shows, as well as periodic visits to Atlanta and the Gathering.

“ZAG has been a major benefit in providing us direct contact with manufacturers who may not otherwise attend shows,” Lucey said. “They provide a steady stream of communication on specials, closeout, merchandising ideas etc.

“Much of our audience wants to be entertained and educated. Merchandise can allow you to do both while increasing the revenue of your respective facility and allowing you to further your overall mission.”

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