museums&MORE Spring 2010
Our Specialty

Full steam ahead for specialty museum store sales

By Abby Heugel, Managing Editor

What do trains, cockroaches and Jell-O have in common? Not a whole lot, I admit, but they do all serve as the focus for not only specialty museums, but also specialty museum shops.

That means that although the retailers of these stores are stocking some traditional items on the shelves, they are also focusing on a niche — whether an object or a theme — that offers visitors that special, unique experience. An advantage is the people coming into the store are already an interested audience, as at least a mild sense of curiosity has drawn them to the museum, and the store itself.

And while it may be tempting for retailers to play it safe and offer much of the same selection that can be found in any souvenir store, it’s that unique nature and passion for the subject that will set your items — and your store — apart. Instead of selling generic snow globes, sell snow globes with customized additions. Instead of selling generic T-shirts, sell T-shirts with your niche proudly displayed on the front.

In other words, sell that Jell-O brain mold loud and proud, as you’re probably one of the only stores that will.

At the LeRoy Historical Society and Jell-O Gallery in LeRoy, N.Y.—where Jell-O was invented in 1897 — Executive Director Lynne Belluscio understands the importance of staying true to the mission of the museum and extending that experience into her store.

I suspect that the attraction of the museum is the curiosity of just what might be in a Jell-O Museum,” Belluscio said. “Our exhibits deal with the ‘History and Mystery of America’s Most Famous Dessert,’ we have 19 original oil paintings from the 1920s that were used for advertising and we have original recipe books, molds, collectibles and television ads, including television ads of Bill Cosby that go back 30 years.”

Belluscio believes that the museum shop should be an extension of the exhibit and focus on what makes that destination unique. She trains salespeople as if she was training museum guides, as the more they know about the items for sale and how they relate to the exhibit, the better sales will be.

And her store carries everything from Jell-O T-shirts, hats, aprons, chef’s hats, pot holders and canvas bags to Jell-O pencils, pens, measuring cups, stuffed animals, Christmas ornaments and boxer shorts. In fact, they are the sole source for these items and work with outside suppliers for the design and production.

“It’s important to include LeRoy, N.Y. on all our things because people want to prove that they were in town,” Belluscio added. “And for those people who live in town, they want proof that they live in the birthplace of Jell-O.”

And if you do create a reproduction of something, she advises to make sure you mark it as such.

“Consider everything that goes out the door as an advertising piece, meaning the quality should be good, the information should be correct and people should be able to contact you to order more,” she added. “All of our price tags have our phone number printed on them.”

After all, just like there’s “always room for Jell-O”, there’s always room for sales.

Bug Out
And while some people may travel to see the birthplace of Jell-O, still more than 6,000 others make the trek to Plano, Texas to see The Cockroach Hall of Fame Museum each year. The museum shares space with a retail pest control supply store for homeowners of the Dallas area and is dedicated to appreciating the cockroach, as well as getting rid of it. That includes souvenirs, of course.

“My niche is for those people that are looking for a fun experience at a number of small offbeat museums that are showing up across the U.S.,” said Michael Bohdan, the museum’s creator. “People are looking for experiences when they travel and a cockroach museum fits that bill.”

Obviously catering to a specific crowd, the gift store sells a variety of T-shirts, cockroach mugs, rubber cockroaches, pens and some higher end merchandise like amber with insects in it. Bohdan said lately there has been an interest in mounted butterflies and insects in display cases.

“People are scared of roaches, but when you see them dressed up like Marilyn Monroach and Liberoachie, they laugh a lot,” Bohdan added. “No matter what you sell, if you make your customer feel special, he will be a walking billboard for your company. Competition is difficult with the advent of the Internet, but if you stand out from the rest, you will do very well.”

Full Steam Ahead
And you’ll also do well to tap into the passion of your niche and create an overall experience for the guests, as they do at The Casey Jones Home & Railroad Museum & Train Store located in Casey Jones Village in Jackson, Tenn. The museum recently underwent an 8,000-square-foot expansion and management agreed they would sell only Casey Jones trains and railroad themed gifts in the 2,000-square-foot gift shop — from model train sets and toys to collectibles, clothing and more.

“As visitors exit the museum onto a covered platform, they are greeted by a 130 ton steam locomotive engine, followed by a baggage car and caboose that looks as if it’s pulled up to the station ready to take on passengers,” said Executive Director and buyer Lawrence Taylor. “The store is conveniently located just across the square from the museum, allowing me to manage the gift shop while also serving as director of the museum.”

Because the customers are primarily train enthusiasts, it’s imperative the store has items for the visitors at every age. There’s baby and toddler merchandise — not only a large selection of Thomas the Tank Engine items but train cups, plates, bowls and sets of dinnerware with a train or Thomas motif and bibs, rattles and toys for the very young.

“The top seller in the toy department is the Thomas the Tank Engine line because of the universal appeal of this little engine and his friends,” Taylor said. “Other top sellers include a variety of books, wood engines and train cars from Whittle Shortline Railroad, name trains from Maple Landmark and all size toy trains from a number of companies.”

But the highlight of the Train Store for most visitors is the Thomas the Tank Engine Play Corner. While there is a small admission fee to tour the museum, families are invited to visit the Train Store anytime and play for free in the kid-friendly zone that includes a reading nook, movie screening area and three train boards.

“In front of the step seating there are Thomas tables for the children to play with,” Taylor said. “This has proven to be an excellent selling tool, as by actually seeing the children watching the DVD’s, parents and grandparents want to buy them for their own little ones.”

For the older kids, the store also offers the model trains, train transformers, T-shirts and other Casey Jones merchandise. For adults, there is a variety of train and Casey Jones DVD’s and CD’s, model trains, books on various railroad topics and many train logo specialty items such as mugs, hats, pins and patches.

“There are standard lines we always have, but we also add a variety of new or different merchandise each year to entice customers to return for more shopping,” Taylor said. “We offer many ‘hard-to-find’ items — railroad jewelry, Christmas ornaments and souvenir items such as thimbles, spoons and magnets all train or Casey Jones themed — so customers seek the store out for those.”

And that’s just want you want, isn’t it? If they’re seeking out a museum for it’s unique qualities, they will be seeking out gifts with the same appeal — be it insects, dessert or a classic locomotive — so try it out and play it up.

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