museums&MORE Summer 2011
Fiddle Sticks Toys

Can your mind come out to play?

When is a museum gift shop more than just a museum gift shop? When it’s a bilingual shopping adventure at Fiddle Sticks Toys in the Children’s Museum of Houston, or if you prefer, the Museo de niños en Houston.

Serving more than 850,000 people annually, the Children’s Museum of Houston is the highest-attended youth museum for its size in the country. It’s dedicated to transforming communities through innovative, child-centered learning and offers 14 galleries of hands-on exhibits and innovative bilingual learning programs for kids of all ages.

“Our visitors reflect the broad ethnic and socio economic diversity of Houston,” said Tammie Kahn, CMH executive director. “There is no other place like it here in Texas or in the country.”

Exhibit Experience
Those high standards are carried over into the 1,000-square-foot gift shop, as Connie Schnupp, director of retail operations of Fiddle Sticks Toys, has made it their mission to sell the best stuff at the best prices to children of all ages.

“We set out to provide inspiration, encourage invention and nurture the imagination,” Schnupp said. “We sell unique experiences with items that will remind visitors of something they interacted with at the Museum.”

The Museum itself is packed with 90,000 square feet of interactive exhibits. No, it’s not about stationary exhibits, but rather changing opportunities to test and try on a daily basis in a one-of-a-kind environment unlike anything most visitors have seen before.

“Kids get better at things the more they play, and that’s what we’re trying to accomplish,” Schnupp said. “Practically speaking, we offer ‘A Playground for Your Mind.’ From challenging puzzles and toddler toys to enhance motor skills to puppets that push the imagination, we are providing children and their parents with learning tools.”

They try to tie the merchandise assortment to the exhibits, making it easier for visitors to take home a “memory,” to learn through play, to choose part of an exhibit and recreate its activity. That way, if visitors enjoy a particular exhibit, they can come to the shop to purchase an item that allows them to take that experience home. By doing this, it makes every exhibit seem like a “hands-on” display.

“Our displays are spread wide open so that parents on the run can literally single out every unique item we sell,” Schnupp said. “Parents are ultimately the decision makers in what they buy for their kids, so all of our toys are carefully selected for their fun appeal (children) and learning value (parents).”

The store is generally changed around three times a year – once in February when new products are shipping, then to prepare for summer and then again to reflect the gift-buying season.

“During the school year we are visited by a large number of toddlers and their parents, so our infant and toddler items sell more, especially puppets and puzzles,” Schnupp said. “For spring break and summer we cut back on the toddler/infant section and focus more on the older kids, as well as travel and outdoor items.”

Visitors can find a wide range of science and invention kits, as well as math and reading games, plush, wearables and brainteasers that challenge both the kids and the adults.

Museum logo items are essential in the store, and the remaining product lines reflect the exhibits – both permanent and traveling – that are featured. Schnupp tries to get the opinion of kids she knows so that her decisions are based on the age group that they’re focused on. She also works with local toy reps and spends a lot of time looking through vendor catalogs and trade publications.

“The economy hasn’t affected our store as much as it might a regular toy store,” Schnupp said. “We are selling more ‘family activities’ like crafts and games that they can do together when they spend more time at home.”

But the item that sells best represents a journey away from home – a school bus. Although all school bus items sell well, the best-selling item is a simple one – the 5-inch die cast school bus.

“We also have larger ones and bus-shaped bath toys,” Schnupp said. “I guess the younger kids want to be like their older siblings and see the school bus as their connection to that daily journey to school.”

Opening Doors
Even though it seems a large number of items are going high-tech, Schnupp noted that at the same time, retro items seem to be making a comeback for parents who would like their children to play with items they did as kids.

“Many suggest hi-tech toys will take over,” she said. “Though they are great tools for skill building, I personally believe children will still crave variety and need toys that will allow them to use their imaginations. It’s not necessarily what you sell, but how you sell it.”

They do use technology to try and draw more people to the museum location with a bilingual website that highlights the current exhibits, important information and items available in the store. In the past they’ve sent e-blasts and included sale offers/coupons visitors can print off the website itself, and Schnupp said there are days when she might surprise the visitors with a discount coupon when they pay their admission or an online deal for them to bring into the shop to redeem.

The museum also places a great deal of focus on outreach programs and currently partners with more than 500 small community-specific, non-profit organizations to reach families that would likely not attend the Museum without encouragement and financial assistance. Activities include Free Family Nights offered Thursdays from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., gift shop deals under $10 and Open Doors, a program that helps to ensure accessibility to the Museum for all Houston audiences.

Their hard work and attention to detail in the museum and the store hasn’t gone unnoticed. The Children’s Museum of Houston is a Citysearch.com’s nationwide 5-star children’s museum, one of the top two Children’s Museums in the country by Child magazine, winner of Nickelodeon Parents’ Picks “Best Museum in Houston 2009 and 2010,” and Click2Houston’s Best “Best Museum in Houston 2010.”

In addition, Parents magazine revealed the findings from its 10 Best Children’s Museums survey and announced the Children’s Museum of Houston (CMH) as the No. 1 children’s museum in the nation. Schnupp appreciates the accolades, but said the real reward is bringing a smile to the faces of those who visit.

“Every day we offer new family-engaging ways to learn more about this exciting, ever-changing world,” Schnupp said. “It’s all about engaging children in development of 21st century skills in ways that encourage them to be confident learners and leaders in the years ahead. At the same time, we’re also helping parents get the support they need to nurture the potential in their children.”

And that is what makes Fiddle Sticks Toys in the Children’s Museum of Houston, or if you prefer, the Museo de niños en Houston, more than just a museum gift shop. Can your mind come out and play?

By Abby Heugel
Managing Editor





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