museums&MORE Winter 2018
KidsQuest plays on By Zeke Jennings

Museum Store at KidsQuest in Bellevue, Washington, makes most of limited retail space.

KidsQuest Children’s Museum graduated to a larger location in 2015, but that actually meant less space for its Museum Store.

Store Manager Alison Luk and crew hasn’t let that stop them from running a retail operation that continues to break its own sales records. The team at KidsQuest does so by putting an emphasis on hands-on and education-focused products that fit in seamlessly with the museum’s overall mission.

KidsQuest opened in Factoria Mall in Bellevue, Washington, in 2005. A decade later, it moved to the former site of the Rosalie Whyel Museum of Doll Art, which closed in 2012. Despite increasing its exhibit and education space, the Museum Store area was reduced to roughly one-third of what it had been.

Luk, the museum’s former Associate Director of Education, has to be selective when choosing what products to carry, but she sees that as part of the fun.

Why did the museum opt for a new home?

Alison Luk: KidsQuest was originally designed to accommodate approximately 60,000 people a year. During our first year, we had over 160,000 visitors, almost triple the number expected. Needless to say, our previous location was well-loved and operating over capacity. In 2012, KidsQuest began searching for a more permanent home that could include more exhibit space, additional classrooms and an outdoor space. We got the amazing opportunity to purchase and develop the former Rosalie Whyel Museum of Doll Art, centrally located in Bellevue’s downtown. The new location offers more than twice the space to explore and play and expanded opportunity for education programs and events. We are so happy to be in our new home!

How large is the staff at the store? Do you rely on volunteers?

AL: We have one part-time store manager, me. We share front desk cashiers with our operations department. We don’t currently utilize volunteers, but it’s something we would love to start.

How does the retail operation fit into the museum’s overall operation?

AL: All Museum Store profits support exhibits, activities, and educational programs at the museum through the general operating fund. Additionally, we see our store as an important extension of our educational work. We make sure that the products in our store reflect KidsQuest’s focus on hands-on, play-based learning.

Where do you typically look for new products?

AL: We love working with our local sales reps. We’ve established wonderful relationships over the years, so they really know our educational philosophy and our clientele. Additionally, we place most of our orders at the big local gift shows in January and August. This lets us take advantage of trade show specials and keep on top of industry trends.

What are your biggest sellers?

AL: Anything patrons get to try out in the museum is always a hit! Toys that reflect our exhibits are very popular. For example, we now sell lots of puppets and costumes, because families get to work with those items in our Story Tree exhibit. We also sell lots of science kits, construction toys and impulse items. A fantastic new category for us has been food. We sell healthy snacks and cold brew coffee for guests that need to refuel during their visit.

Does anything in particular always seem to draw a reaction?

AL: We carry branded kid’s shirts that say, “This is what a scientist looks like.” Adults love the message, and I get a kick out of seeing little girls sporting the bright pink version. You can love pink and love chemistry too!

What do you look for when gauging if a product is right for your store?

AL: We strive to carry items that you can’t find in big-box stores, so that shopping in our store is a unique experience. Because our retail space is so small, we are very careful about our product mix. I think about stocking items at a variety of price points, for a wide range of ages and that cover a range of interests. Additionally, it’s important to us that our stock reflects our organization’s educational focus.

Do upcoming exhibits influence product displays or buying habits?

AL: We work very closely with our Education Department to make sure we stock items that will be featuring in exhibits. We also help them source exciting new manipulatives and building materials. For example, if I see an exciting new construction set at a trade show, I can work with our Education team to feature it in our Connections building exhibit and in the store.

What advantages or challenges does being a retailer in a nonprofit museum present versus being a for-profit standalone retailer?

AL: I think we have the advantage that people encounter our store after having an amazing experience in our museum. Happy people make great customers! Additionally, putting a product in the museum is the best sales technique we have. If a parent sees their 1-year-old stay engaged with a toy in our Tot Orchard, they are often thrilled to see that they can purchase one to take home.

One challenge we’ve had is that with our recent move, our store is about one-third the size it was at our old location. It’s really made us curate our selection even more carefully and think about how to keep displays compact. That being said, we are having our best sales year ever!

Zeke Jennings

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