museums&MORE Summer 2015
SEA LIFE Michigan: Where sales and conservation make a tidal gift shop story

The SEA LIFE Michigan Aquarium opened only four months ago in Auburn Hills and has since experienced nothing short of a wave of retail success.

Located in Great Lakes Crossing Mall, SEA LIFE cut its grand opening ribbon on Jan. 29 and its popularity has rippled through the community every weekend since.

The aquarium’s Grand Opening was a huge success and the support has continued to be incredible,” said Susan DeLaRosa, SEA LIFE’s retail duty manager. In addition to hosting more SEA LIFE creatures than Michigan has ever before seen, and offering attendance incentives that are difficult to turn down, DeLaRosa believes SEA LIFE’s high attendance rates speak to the regional culture, as well.

“We’ve been completely sold-out almost every weekend since our opening,” she said. “And it’s a testament to the community’s interest in marine creatures, their environment and conservation.”

A regional rarity

SEA LIFE Michigan is the state’s largest aquarium — and the only one where visitors could come “nose-to-nose with a shark,” DeLaRosa said.

While surrounded by lakes, rivers and streams, there is certainly not a shortage of freshwater life in Michigan, but SEA LIFE Michigan is host to more than 5,000 sea creatures, making its accompanying gift store’s product line rare to the region.

As most destination-centric retailers in Michigan are buying items reflective of the locale, SEA LIFE’s inventory stretches beyond state and coastal lines, letting Michiganders and regional visitors feel they are taking home a part of the ocean with them.

DeLaRosa explained SEA LIFE’s product line buying takes place at its corporate level, but that inventory is chosen with a mission in mind — which is a smart tactic for every retailer to follow, no matter the mission.

“Our products are chosen by our corporate office and shipped to us on a weekly basis,” she explained. “We select products based on preferred vendors whose mission of conservation matches ours at SEA LIFE Michigan.”

While independent retailers typically have the buying responsibility delegated to one or two individuals, ensuring your philosophies are in line with your vendors’ can be an important way to maintain your shop’s vision and help establish a store brand.

If retailers would like their shop to have a local theme, for example, carrying products crafted by community artisans with local ingredients would be a great way to maintain the store’s mission/philosophy and carve out a niche product line.

“Everything in our store that is branded with SEA LIFE can’t be found anywhere else in Michigan,” DeLaRosa said. “The biggest challenge with opening our gift store was keeping product on the shelf!”

Come on in, community

SEA LIFE Michigan offers incentives to its community in many different ways that increases visibility, foot traffic and profits.

Hosting themed birthday parties is just one way the aquarium entices new guests — and also keeps them coming back.

“We offer the most unique birthday parties in Metro Detroit,” DeLaRosa said, excitedly. “Where else could your birthday child hold a crab, touch a sea star, come nose to nose with sharks and more? Our birthday parties can be mermaid- or pirate- themed with ‘under the sea’ games, and the party also includes admission to the aquarium for the guests.”

Included in the birthday package is an annual children’s pass to entice the child — and members of their family — back to the aquarium.

“Each birthday party-goer receives admission to the aquarium, too, so it brings extra people into the store when they finish their self-guided tour,” DeLaRosa said. “The beauty of it is that most of the birthday party-goers are paid for by the birthday family, so they usually have some extra money to spend in the store.”

By merchandising admission packages to include gift store discounts, SEA LIFE is able to incentivize guests to return and make purchases in its retail store each time, as well.

On top of ensuring its store has visually appealing displays that encourage browsing, DeLaRosa said: “We also offer 10 percent off of items in our gift shop to our annual pass holders. It’s one of the best benefits of becoming an annual pass holder.”

Interact and take action

After experiencing an array of interactive displays, it’s no wonder SEA LIFE Michigan’s most popular merchandise include plush animals.

“We have interactive displays and activities throughout the aquarium including our Dive Adventure Trail and touch-screen information pads that teach our guests about the creatures they’re seeing, why they’re important to the environment and how they can help to protect them,” DeLaRosa said.

While learning about the importance of preserving wildlife and what threatens it today, what child wouldn’t want to take home a cuddly friend to nurture and ensure its safety?

DeLaRosa cited sharks, octopuses, stingrays and seahorses as just some of the popular plush items sold at the gift shop.

“There’s something to be said about seeing an Atlantic Stingray gliding through the water, a Giant Pacific Octopus stretch its many arms, and holding a crab in your hands,” DeLaRosa said. “These experiences remind you how incredible these creatures are and, suddenly, you’re inspired to protect them. So, while our merchandise can’t capture the true essence of these amazing creatures, a plush Bonnethead shark can serve as a constant reminder of just how wonderful they are and keeps that inspiration alive.”

Not only do visitors get the opportunity to learn about conservation in the aquarium, they also experience it by shopping at the gift store, which has reduced its plastic usage by 30 percent. DeLaRosa said this was made possible by switching to paper bags and being conscientious of the merchandise packaging: “We’ve chosen to primarily purchase merchandise that is not sold in packaging or, if it does have packaging, that the packaging is mostly cardboard instead of plastic,” she explained. “(Reducing plastic usage) is very important because plastic pollution is detrimental to marine environments.”

Interacting with the environment and protecting what is in its locale is another way SEA LIFE extends its mission beyond its doors.

“We have partnered with the Clinton River Watershed Council to participate in watershed cleanups throughout the year,” DeLaRosa explained. “We encourage all of our staff members, including our retail associates, to participate in local cleanups and other conservation activities. We also let our guests know that they’re welcome to join us!”





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