National Park Excursions
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is known for its diversity — in plants and wildlife. The mountains call to many visitors, it is one of the most visited national parks in the nation. Nestled along the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, the park holds significant interest for visitors who enjoy all things outdoor related. The diversity also extends into the retail experiences within and near the park.
Multiple Gift Stores
Dawn Roark, retail director for Great Smoky Mountains Association (GSMA) gift shops, said there are three year-round stores and one seasonal store within the park. “We also have three stores outside the park boundary in the local gateway communities,” she shared.
The Sugarlands Visitor Center, located near Gatlinburg and the park’s headquarters, is the busiest shop. “This space is around 1,500 square feet and complements an adjacent park natural history museum, pollinator garden and small trail system leading to a nearby waterfall,” Roark said.
The second busiest store is at the Cades Cove Visitor Center, which offers 800 square feet and is located along a popular scenic loop route.
The third busiest store, at Oconaluftee Visitor Center, is the newest location and consists of 900 square feet. “The Oconaluftee space lies in another beautiful valley on the North Carolina side of the park known for its resident population of elk,” Roark shared.
Clingmans Dome offers yet another retail space within the park and it features approximately 500 square feet and is ideally situated near the highest mountain peak in the Smokies. “Here you can shop with a view and climb to the nearby observation tower,” Roark explained.
In 2019, GSMA gift stores welcomed 2.4 million shoppers in all its stores — this includes those within the park and in the surrounding localities. “Broken into our separate retail locations, Sugarlands had 849,000, Cades Cove had 462,000, Oconaluftee had 398,000 and Clingmans Dome had 333,000 visitors,” she said. Most of the park shops are open year round. There is one exception — the Clingmans Dome shop — as its location often experiences inclement winter weather that closes the roads.
GSMA gift shops, like other retail environments, do experience a busy season, which runs from mid-May through mid-November. Roark noted that this busy season is due to the visitors that journey to the mountains in the milder weather of summer and in the fall. “We do hire additional seasonal staff to meet demand during those peak times,” said Roark. “Our employee count varies depending on the time of year, but at the height of the season we usually have around 120 employees.”
Clothing is the top-seller in the GSMA gift shops. “We source these from multiple vendors. Food is also a favorite—we get our preserves from Anna’s Kitchen, our relishes and chowchow from Haebeggers, our sorghum from Muddy Pond, and our honey from Alison’s Honey,” Roark explained. Roark’s favorite products are the reusable bottles and mugs. “I love the colors and the design that our graphic artist Karen Key created,” she explained.
“We do offer customized products. Some of our most popular items are our pottery mugs made for us by Deneen Pottery, a family owned business in Minnesota, and our reclaimed and recycled glass ornaments made exclusively for us by Pampeana,” detailed Roark. “We also offer a number of products customized with text or art to promote Great Smoky Mountains National Park.”
GSMA gift shops offer most products throughout the entire year, but some seasonal items are curated into the mix as well — hand warmers and bug spray are examples of seasonal items. “We also carry a Deneen pottery mug in the spring and fall that is customized for the season. It sells very well, and we have visitors looking for them before they even hit the stores,” she said.
Displays are updated seasonally and are timed with the arrival of new merchandise. Roark’s tip for creating displays is to tell a story and ensure that it is appealing to shoppers. She also suggested that retailers should know what is relevant to a store’s specific location.
“For example, the Oconaluftee area of the Smokies is well-known for its population of elks, so at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, we make sure our merchandising is heavy on elk merchandise,” she said. “The Cades Cove Visitor Center is heavy in items related to that area and black bears. At Sugarlands Visitor Center, we try to keep a sample of everything, as this is the main visitor center of the park, and they receive visitors who are on the way to the different locations.”
Each brick-and-mortar location is unique and GSMA strives to incorporate a unified approach in its branding. “We balance this by using consistent signage and branding across all of our stores while also fine-tuning our displays and available retail products at each location; taking into account all the uniqueness of each area of the Smokies that I talked about earlier—whether it’s history, flora, fauna, or recreational appeal,” explained Roark.
Additionally, all GSMA shops offer products that reflect the visitors’ park experience and offer memorabilia tied to that experience. Roark emphasized that its stores’ merchandise also plays a role in educating visitors on the culture and natural history of the region. GSMA memberships are available at each store, providing yet another way visitors can remain connected to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
GSMA gift stores hold an additional appeal — a give-back opportunity. Roark explained that all retail purchases benefit the park directly. “And support visitor services for more than 12 million annual visitors, provide salaries for backcountry rangers and wildlife management staff who protect our most beloved creatures like the black bear, and fund important park projects that range from vegetation mapping and water quality monitoring to ongoing historical research and natural history preservation,” she shared.
Prior to the pandemic, book signings, live demonstrations on milling or harvesting were special events that drew visitors into the stores. This helped to promote seasonal product offerings. “Some of our most perennially successful events are our sorghum making demonstrations that we host every year in the fall. Local producer Muddy Pond Sorghum brings mules, a sorghum press, and a cooker with them to the Cades Cove area and show visitors how sorghum was traditionally made. We provide tastes of the sorghum and sell the product right there where they are demonstrating,” detailed Roark.
Like many retailers, GSMA has adjusted to the pandemic retail environment. It has installed plexiglass shields, reduced capacity and expanded its cleaning regimen. Additionally, it instituted a mask requirement for employees and request its customers also wear them. “We’ve also set up hand-sanitizer stations at all locations and expanded our existing cleaning regimen to keep everyone as safe as possible while enjoying the country’s most-visited national park,” she said.
GSMA’s stores attract visitors any time of year, as Mother Nature’s serene setting offers an appeal that is hard to resist and Roark shared her sentiments about the park, its retail environment and her 15-year tenure: “I love that our work means something and that we are working for a great cause.”