Gifts of the Wild
A Michigan zoo makes the most of the seasons
If you’ve ever been to Michigan in the winter, you know it might not be the best time to explore an outdoor zoo. Keeping that in mind, Theresa Danneffel, gift manager and buyer for the John Ball Zoo Society in Grand Rapids, Mich., makes the most of the warm seasonal months and the retail opportunities that abound.
“During the spring and fall we just operate the main Gift Shop that’s located at the top of the hill when you enter the zoo,” Danneffel said. “But there are a total of five different stands during the warmer months, the busiest part of the year.”
Danneffel said she takes the time and makes sure she’s always out in the shops, getting feedback on what the guests think and feel about the shop and the zoo as a whole. She then takes that back and thinks of new ways to be creative and give the guests what they really want.
What they want when they come to the zoo is a mix of fun and education, which is exactly what they get. Small and intimate in comparison to some other zoos, John Ball Zoo has a stay time of around 3-4 hours and offers a variety of hands-on exhibits and experiences. Along with a petting coral, baby Pygmy goat petting coral, stingray lagoon and a budgie aviary, other extras they offer include Swan Boat rides, zip line rides, camel rides and a two-story ropes course.
“Zoos are a way for kids that live in the city to come learn, see and get hands on with animals that they would only be able to learn about in a book,” Danneffel said. “It also gets kids excited about nature and wildlife and they learn how to preserve it so these animals can continue to survive and the kids can teach future generations the same thing.”
All of the exhibits have educational cards by them that describe the animal, where they’re from and if that animal is threatened in the wild. This education is carried on throughout the gift shops, as they sell educational items with tags on them (plush, toys and PVC) that tell about that animal, where it lives and what people can do to help that species survive.
“We try to carry all the animals in the gift shop that are viewable at John Ball Zoo, plus a large variety that are not as well – elephants, zebras, giraffes and hippos,” Danneffel said. “I want to have those items available to our guests as well as the ones that they can see right up close and personal.”
The main store is only 500 square feet, so Danneffel has to be creative on how she arranges things and picky about what items are in the gift shop, stating she “only wants things in the shop that are going to sell quickly.”
Plush is their best selling category because customers are mostly kids that want the cute, cuddly animals that they just saw. Danneffel said kids want the crazy colored animals – plush that are bright colored and silly patterned with big eyes – and that she can’t keep hot pink plush of any kind on the shelf.
“Our best-selling plush include the snow leopards and penguins, both animals we have in the zoo, and plush that sells at a price point of $15 or under,” she said. “When we go much higher than that it tends to slow down, so I try to keep most of the plush that I sell below $10 for a guaranteed sale.”
The general gift shop makes sure to offer something for visitors of all ages. While adult shirts are slower to sell than the kid’s shirts, they still have a variety of styles for them to choose from. An adult gift section of the store offers different figurines, picture frames, home décor and sauces. Danneffel said they recently started carrying hot sauce in the shop and it’s proven to be a great seller.
“I had to re-order multiple times during the season,” she said. “It’s one of those items that even the dads can get, so I’m going to bring in a bigger selection for 2011.”
Each year Danneffel hires around 15-20 seasonal employees who will go through an all-day orientation to go over all training packets, customer service, cash handling and the layout of the zoo.
“I also send letters out to employees from the year before that were great workers, as this helps alleviate some of the stress of hiring all new employees each year,” she said. “We do skits of the wrong ways employees are working and have the employees go up and act out the way it should be done.”
The training pays off when they are working any of the four seasonal stands Danneffel operates as well: Airbrushed Tattoos, the Front Entry Gift Stand, Stuff It! Build an Animal Stand and a general Gift Cart.
“The kids love the airbrushed tattoos because they can get it colored or just keep it black,” Danneffel said. “Adults tend to join in on the fun at times, too!”
Visitors can see the Front Entry Gift Stand as they enter or leave the zoo. It’s there for all the necessities on the way in – cameras, sun block, batteries and hats – or a souvenir shop for when the families are leaving. They offer different plush, toys and lower priced shirts there for an impulse buy or for those families that do not want to go into the main gift shop.
“The Stuff It! Stand is the hot spot for kids wanting to build their own new animal friend,” Danneffel said. “Kids love looking through our 12-14 different styles of animals to pick which one they want to bring to life. We also offer accessories and outfits for them to dress their animals up at this stand, too.”
The general Gift Cart is a seasonal stand that changes each year depending on what the theme of the zoo is or what is the hot seller for the year. This last year it was a “Green Cart” to highlight the zoo’s new alligator exhibit and eco-friendly items. For 2011 they’re planning on changing it to a “Reptile Cart.”
No matter where it’s sold, all of the merchandise they offer is animal themed and a majority of items are imprinted with the John Ball Zoo logo. Danneffel offers different promotions and sales to guests each month to keep them coming back in the shop.
“We offer a 10 percent discount to the members all year long and I also do a ‘members only’ sale twice a year in the spring and fall with a discount of 30 percent,” she said. “It gives the members something extra as a thank you, seeing as they are the ones that visit our destination most often.”
All the money that is made goes back into the zoo to help the animals and to help build new exhibits. The P.O.S. system in the main gift shop also has a rounding up feature that allows cashiers to ask the guests if they would like to donate the change from their sale to the zoo and round their total up to the next even dollar. The money donated goes toward enrichment items, zookeeper training tools and improvements to the zoo, and in 2010 the zoo guests donated a total of $6,000 through this program.
And just because it gets a little cold doesn’t mean they close up shop. The zoo still has plenty of animals viewable in both inside and outside exhibits – grizzly bears, snow leopards, mountain lions, troop of chimpanzees, many monkey and birds species and a variety of other exhibits are always available.
What else is always available? Top-notch customer service every time you visit the store – a practice in no danger of facing extinction.
By Abby Heugel