Even animals get into the act at the Louisville Zoo Gift Shops
By Abby Heugel, Managing Editor
Even with the economy getting a bit back on track, retailers are still fighting for every consumer dollar out there. One way to do this is to offer unique items not found at every retail store.
So what kind of items can set them apart? The answer for Kathy Kline, manager of the Louisville Zoo Gift Shops, is art created by the zoo animals and fair-trade, handmade products. It’s this combination that has brought in steady sales to the zoo’s newest retail location, the Nature’s Gift Shoppe.
In addition to two satellite gift shop carts on the grounds, we have three gift shops at the Louisville Zoo — the main shop, the Gorilla Forest Shop and the newest addition, the Nature’s Gift Shoppe,” Kline said. “Nature’s Gift Shoppe is different from our other two shops in that we carry fair-trade products and artwork by our zoo animals.”
Kline added that the 350-square-foot Nature’s Gift Shoppe has been extremely popular since opening in 2009, as consumers are aware that their purchases can help others and have an impact on the environment. With all the stores, they work to tie the mission of the Louisville Zoo of “bettering the bond between people and our planet” into the product.
“We make sure each day that the gift shops are living and implementing that mission,” Kline said. “The sale of our fair-trade products helps people in developing countries move toward economic self-sufficiency and stability, and proceeds of purchases from our gift shops benefit the zoo and its conservation efforts.”
A Natural Choice
The 2,522-square foot Main Gift Shop and the 800-square-foot Gorilla Forest Gift Shop carry many of the traditional offerings — plush, wearables, cups, etc.— with a greater selection of gorilla merchandise in the latter. The Nature’s Gift Shoppe is located in a segmented section of the main restaurant, the African Outpost, a location that generates a great amount of foot traffic.
“We coordinate displays in our shops to tie in with events and milestones in the zoo, such as the birth of a baby elephant or Orangutan
Awareness Weekend,” Klein said. “We don’t want the zoo experience to end for the visitor once they leave the gate. If they purchase a book, stuffed animal, bracelet or other item while they are here, that extends their visit past the exit and they get to take a piece of their experience home.”
Kline claims that between their shops, they have the largest selection of stuffed animals in Louisville, including those not found in other stores such as white alligators, komodo dragons and siamangs. Overall, these are their best selling items.
“People love plush and they transcend ages,” Klein said, “grandparents buy for their grandkids, parents buy for their children and boyfriends buy for girlfriends. And they’re versatile, in that the price range is from about $3.95 to $174.95.”
But when it comes to products, Nature’s Gift Shoppe goes past just unique plush by offering a variety of specialty items in the atmosphere of an upper scale boutique, yet with affordable and reasonable price points. The layout is “hands on” in that items aren’t behind cases, but are instead displayed so customers can touch, feel and get close to them.
“We carry a lot of smaller, sophisticated specialty items like jewelry, handbags and boxes and feature fair-trade products from around the world — from hand knit animal finger puppets from the Andes Mountains in Peru and handmade baskets from Bangladesh to tree-free paper journals from artists in India,” Klein said. “The sale of these fair-trade products helps people in developing countries move toward economic self-sufficiency and stability.”
Other available items include Himalayan jewelry, natural seed jewelry from artists in Antigua and hand woven pillows and purses from India. There are also sheep wool toys, purses, booties and baby hats made in Mongolia with proceeds going toward the Snow Leopard Trust, as well as to improving the livelihood of the impoverished families who live in the region.
“One thing I have learned about working with fair-trade, handmade products is that it can take months to get a shipment, so I have had to rethink my ordering process and stay way ahead of the game,” Klein said. “I have to do more planning at the slightest inclination we are getting low to allow for ample time to get these specialty items.”
They even carry elephant-friendly ivory products that look like ivory, but actually come from the tagua nut that grows from a type of South American palm tree.
“These pieces in Nature’s Gift Shoppe are true gifts of love with a message behind all the pieces, and they have amazing workmanship,” Klein said. “To me, there is a lot of thought and heart that goes into these handmade products.”
A lot of thought and heart also goes into the animal art made by some of the zoo’s most popular endangered animals — Mikki the elephant, Jelani the gorilla and Segundo the orangutan. Klein said the unique nature of these paintings has brought inquiries from people across the country.
“I was an art major, so I love art and color,” Klein said. “They are very contemporary pieces; you can see brush strokes and fingerprints and sometimes I can’t even believe an animal created the artwork.
“Each piece is unique,” she continued. “No two are alike and in some I see things like waves and the sky and the combination of colors and texture excites me. As an artist, I appreciate the work.”
And while the work basically sells itself, their personal stories serve as a strong selling point as well, such as that of the 21-year old male Sumatran orangutan Segundo. Klein shared that you can tell Segundo apart from the other male orangutan at the Louisville Zoo because he doesn’t have a throat sac.
“It was removed when he was about 15 years old due to air sacculitis, an infection within an orangutan’s air sac,” Klein explained. “He was only the fifth orangutan in North America to undergo a throat sac removal.”
And it’s a safe bet that he’s only one of a few orangutan in North America selling prints in the gift shop. But while he’s described as quiet and shy, fond of spending time with his keepers and painting, Klein said that once he begins, “he likes to not only paint the canvas, but the walls and everything near him.”
Mikki is a female African elephant that arrived at the Louisville Zoo in 1987 from the wild. She became a mom in 2007 to Scotty, the first elephant born in the zoo’s 40- year history.
“Mikki has been painting for 15 years and has created more than 200 works of art,” Klein said. “She uses her trunk like a hand and holds a paintbrush to paint her masterpieces, which are always a rainbow of colors.”
Jelani is a blackback gorilla that was born at Lincoln Park Zoo in 1997 and arrived at Louisville Zoo in 2002. Jelani has been finger painting for more than four years, and his keepers say “it is an outlet of his artistic expression” and that it’s “truly enjoyable enrichment for Jelani.”
And it’s truly enjoyable enrichment for those who come in to frequent the zoo and the shops on a regular basis. Klein said that they have a supportive membership base and offer regular discounts to zoo members. In addition, the zoo participates in a reciprocity program with more than 120 other zoos and organizations, so they extend the discount to visitors with memberships from those organizations as well.
“We make sure each day that the gift shops are living and implementing the mission of the zoo,” Klien said. “Like the animals, these items have personality, and that isn’t something you can pick up just anywhere.”