museums&MORE Summer 2010
Professor of Profit

Pennypickle’s Workshop is scientific evidence that learning can be fun—and profitable

By Abby Heugel, Managing Editor

When you enter Professor Phineas T. Pennypickle’s Workshop at The Temecula Children’s Museum in California, you’re not just entering a museum, but rather the life of a time-traveling scientist/adventurer/inventor, whose humorous gizmos and experiments fill every room of the innovative 7,500-square-foot facility.

Each of the rooms in the Professor’s Workshop is one that you would find in a typical family’s home, but they are decorated in a strange and wacky theme, with each designed to represent a different category of scientific principles, such as Perception & Illusion” (the Professor’s bedroom), “Power & Electricity” (the dining room) and “Time and Travel” (the library).

The Professor’s little shop, Pennypickles, is integrated into that scenario and serves as the parlor of the Victorian-styled home, so as visitors enter the building through the uniquely decorated front doors, they are immediately immersed into the world of Professor Pennypickle and the science toys and gizmos that fascinate him.

“Pennypickles looks very much like the room in a house, with curtained windows and real furniture used to display merchandise,” said Pat Comerchero, museum founder and creator of the Pennypickle character. “He is fond of time travel, of course, so you’ll find some unusual clocks. Optics, magnets, and light sources are favorites, as well as science kits and implements including microscopes.”

Most of the Professor’s furnishings are meant to be hands-on components of various experiments or demonstrated principles of science, and children are encouraged to play with anything marked with a three-dimensional penny and pickle icon — making it a truly interactive shopping experience.

Successful Experiment
Located in the heart of Temecula’s historic Old Town tourist area, Pennypickle’s Workshop, the Temecula Children’s Museum, is proud to consider itself the first themed children’s museum in the United States. Comerchero added that in 2009, Pennypickle’s Workshop was given Nickelodeon Networks’ Parents’ Pick Award for Best Museum in the San Diego vicinity — even though the Temecula Children’s Museum is 60 miles from San Diego and was compared against larger, more well-established museums in San Diego’s famous Balboa Park cultural area.

“The intent of the concept was to marry the wholesomeness of Tom Sawyer and his sense of home-spun curiosity and adventure with Doc Brown’s crazy ‘Back to the Future’ inventiveness and experimentation in order to draw children into the excitement of noticing the world around them, and how science is a part of everything they see, touch, smell and play with,” Comerchero said.

The gift shop leads intuitively into the rest of the “house,” so entering the museum area becomes a natural and desirable progression. Impulse items are everywhere, and most of them are only $5.

“We are dedicated to giving children a ‘wow!’ experience beginning with the integrity of the items we sell in the gift shop through the Professor’s house, including every aspect of programming and events we offer,” Comerchero said. “By ‘integrity,’ I mean that we consider Professor Pennypickle’s character and back story to be paramount at all times, whether we are choosing gadgets to sell in the store or preparing experiments to demonstrate to visitors.”

Everything is thought of with the perspective being whether a wacky professor would choose or consider that particular thing, whatever it is, and whether children would also find that thing fun or interesting. To that end, Comerchero and Debbi Nelson, gift shop manager, look for unusual science-based items everywhere — including traditional and non-traditional buying venues.

“Pennypickle’s character is that of a Renaissance man — someone well-educated, well-traveled, expansive in his desire to collect and explore, and yet he is reclusive and loves disguises, codes and secret messages,” Comerchero said. “We try to carry that theme and spirit into the items we sell, which means we are pretty eccentric while being selective. However, we have the ability to promote many different objects as things the Professor wants to offer as souvenirs to his visitors.”

The gift shop specializes in science-based merchandise and does not offer most items found in traditional toy and game stores, although select things are chosen from any company offering science, construction, electronic or nature items. The store also places an emphasis on interesting inventions and retro items that someone of the Professor’s caliber would find fascinating. This differentiates the shop from mass-merchandisers in the area.

“Some science items are tricky to sell, because sometimes moms are hesitant to purchase something they fear will make a mess, or perhaps they are afraid they won’t be able to explain the scientific process to the child,” Comerchero said. “We try to take that fear away by using the merchandise within the museum so the family can see how it is supposed to be used and to facilitate that ‘ah ha’ moment. We know we are successful when the child wants to buy the item so he can show it off to his friends and family.”

Buying Beaker
The best selling items in the gift shop are those that are partial to the Pennypickle theme — most importantly, the Professor’s friend, Beaker.

“Beaker is a little field mouse that was befriended by the Professor and is included in all his adventures — plus, he has adventures of his own,” Nelson said. “The kids adore him and want to take one home. So, we sell Beaker as a stuffed animal finger puppet with his own little carrying case and story. It’s one of our most popular items.”

The synergy between the gift shop and the museum allows the shop to offer special incentives, such as free admission tickets, in order to increase sales or as a gift with purchase. This is particularly useful when investing in a large quantity of a certain item, and has been a successful tactic in several promotional activities.

In addition to the museum’s regular daily operating hours, Pennypickle’s Workshop offers Science Adventures every Friday night of the year. These special evenings, like “The Great Build,” “Soda Bottle Science,” etc., allow children to discover, invent and play while being subtly exposed to the ingredients of those experiments that may be purchased in the gift shop after the event. During regular hours in the Workshop, museum staff demonstrates science items available and encourage visitors to look for them before they leave.

“If I want to sell a lot of a certain item, I do one of two things,” Nelson said. “I either give it to the museum staff to play with and show visitors, or I explain and sell it to one or two children in a field trip group. Invariably, all the children in the group end up wanting that item!”
Customers know that something they may see in the store may not be there the next time they visit, since unusual merchandise purchases are sometimes a one-time buy in order for the store to stay unique.

“We made a decision a long time ago to specialize in science-based objects and things that a curious, clever person would buy,” Comerchero said. “But there are a lot of places to go with that, so we shy away from the ‘school-supplies’ model and look for things kids really would have fun with and are willing to spend their own money on.”

In addition, the Web site for Pennypickle’s Workshop broadens the appeal of the character by offering glimpses of his scattered thoughts and writings, what to look forward to when they visit and what kind of merchandise is found in the gift shop. Customers can pre-purchase tickets to special events and souvenirs such as lab coats or museum memberships online. But whether they’re online or in-store, customer service is tops on the list.

“The staff’s commitment to personal service and patient assistance makes every visitor’s experience at the museum special,” Comerchero said. “The first impression of our facility starts at the door, and our gift shop employees are the first interaction the visitor experiences. It is vital that there is friendly enthusiasm and caring, no matter what the circumstances.”

Comerchero added that that, as much as anything else they are offering, is what makes a visitor a customer and keeps them wanting to come back. Well, that and Beaker, of course.

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