museums&MORE Fall 2009
Million Dollar Sales

When taking a trip to a state park, one might anticipate a bevy of wildlife, a wealth of foliage and a standard souvenir shop set somewhere among the mix. What one might not anticipate is a giant hippopotamus, one gift shop with manatee plush and custom-designed pajamas and another with a crystal chandelier illuminating a selection of Vera Bradley products. However, a trip to the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park in Homosassa, Fla., provides visitors with all of that — and a whole lot more.

Museum Store Manager Evelyn Astore said that its success has been based on keeping current with buying trends, offering quality products and pricing that product with perceived value in mind. Merchandise is selected to support The Florida Park Service mission To provide resource-based recreation while preserving, interpreting and restoring our natural and cultural resources” to Florida wildlife. While park attendance is around 350,000 a year, an influx of northern visitors and European tourism make December through March their “busy season,” with March being the busiest.

“Our park is like a zoo for Florida wildlife,” Astore said. “When we added a second gift shop, The State of Elegance, our sales increased tremendously. In 2004 we won ‘The Team Work’ award for making over a million dollars in sales for both stores.”

That’s right — both stores. Along with high-end merchandise offered at The State of Elegance, located in the main entrance, visitors can find a plethora of affordable souvenirs and gifts at another store located inside the park itself —The Nest of Treasures. There are approximately 18 employees between the gifts shops and entrances, and while both stores bring their own charm to the retail environment, they also bring awareness and support to the wildlife of Florida.

“I don’t buy the same merchandise for both shops,” Astore said. “The more popular items — stuffed animals and T-shirts — I do carry in both gift shops, but you won’t see Vera Bradley down at the Nest of Treasures. For that store I buy a more affordable line and can offer all price points. However, I do sell books at both shops and The Nest of Treasures sells more books than the State of Elegance. Through books our park visitors become more educated on the park’s mission.”

Best of Both Worlds
In 1989, the Florida Park Service bought Nature World and renamed it Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. It was about that time that Astore transferred to Homosassa Springs from Honeymoon Island State Park. As a result of her expertise and passion for the cause — at Homosassa Springs the retail profits support 10 percent of all State Parks — Astore was promoted to Museum Store Manager within a year.

Because Homosassa Springs cares for injured/ill manatees and is a safe haven for Florida wildlife, many of the products are reflective of this feature. While The State of Elegance is mostly giftware on the higher end with all price points, the newest trends, offered gift certificates and a layaway plan, Astore describes The Nest of Treasures as “kid-oriented and grandparent affordable.”

“It’s more reflective of the mission of the Florida state parks, with items for adults and children such as educational products, DVDs, books, puzzles, etc.,” Astore said. “We carry apparel, toys and gifts for all ages and a huge selection of unique specialty giftware that everyone can afford.”

Along with a variety of apparel, plush and accessories, The State of Elegance fills its shelves with offerings from Lenox, Lladro, Nao and Vera Bradley, sterling silver and gold jewelry, Mill Creek statues, gallery quality figurines and artwork. Astore has found ladies accessories to be their biggest seller at that location.

“Most guests are so surprised when they walk in,” Astore said. “When they first enter the gift shop, they see a crystal chandelier hanging over a case with 14-karat gold and then they see Vera Bradley — what a surprise they get!”

In both stores, much of the product centers on the surroundings they are located in. The park has an underwater fishbowl for the rehabilitated manatees, so they can be seen in their natural habitat all year round. As a result, the stores sell manatee custom plush from The Petting Zoo and Wishpets and when Astore travels to trade shows, she’s always on the hunt for manatee merchandise and custom pieces.

“”Manatee items are our most popular items in the shops, and in fact, T-shirts with manatees are one of our top sellers,”” Astore said. “”We’ve been lucky to find vendors that have been able to supply us with custom designs and items that can’t be found anywhere else — such as our popular custom designed manatee pajamas.””

Animal Appeal
And then there’s Lu, a hippo that was inherited with the park 20 years ago and has appeared in the movies “Daktari”” and “”Coming to Africa.”” The governor gave them permission to keep Lu at the park by giving him honorary state citizenship. He’s become quite the attraction, so naturally a stuffed hippo from The Petting Zoo with the custom name “Lu” on the product has become a very popular item in the stores.

“”At the park we also have two Florida black bears, a brother and sister, that lost their mother in the wild and were rescued from the Ocala National Forest,”” Astore added. “”We sell a custom plush bear with our name on it, which is also one of our most popular items.””

Because Astore has worked at the park for 20 years, she’s been able to see many changes in customer interest and buying habits. She marveled at the fact that everything is coming full circle — what she bought 20 years ago is now coming back— and that the public is becoming more aware and educated about endangered species, meaning more of these selective items are available.

“”How you display merchandise plays a major role in selling the merchandise — rotate your stock so it always looks fresh and new,”” Astore advised. “”We continuously move merchandise around to keep it looking fresh. When things are stagnant, I rearrange the whole gift shop for a new look. It creates excitement and merchandise that hasn’t been selling seems to go out much quicker.””

They also offer promotions and sales as appropriate, such as a 20 percent discount off the price of merchandise (excluding Vera Bradley) through the month of December. Astore has found that now when she does her buying, she’s looking for lower price points, which seems to help with the current economic situation.

“”I used The Petting Zoo and had a small manatee made for $1,”” she said. “”I offered it to park visitors for $1with a purchase of $25 or more, and this helped a lot with our sales. I will do this again.””

Astore noted that in times like these, it’s important to remain focused on your mission and your customer’s needs. With Homossassas Park’s reputation for being an accessible, clean park— with two gift shops filled with well-displayed product, of course — people want to come back to see what you have next.

And be sure to say hi to the hippo.”

Social Connections

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