Selling an Aquarium Experience
Having extremely rare shark rays — Sweet Pea and Scooter — and powerful tiger sharks that can be up to 10 feet in length creates a unique experience for children and adults alike.
Having a gift shop as part of an attraction creates a unique opportunity, as Rebecca Etter, retail director for the Newport Aquarium, can attest. After wandering through 85 feet of acrylic underwater tunnels that wind their way through a 385,000- gallon tank, visitors to the Newport Aquarium in Newport, Ky., find themselves at the Newport Aquarium Gift Shop. The 5,000-square-foot store at the end of the tour contains a collection of inexpensive memorabilia, fun clothing, beautiful and unusual jewelry, attractive display items and, of course, a large collection of plush critters.
“We have a captured audience who wants to remember their visit and special time with friends and/or family,” Etter said. “This can be created with a purchase of an item from our Gift Shop. The best thing we can do to keep guests coming back is to ensure the memorable experiences are worth repeating and have the merchandise to remind them of that.”
For those who may not always want to take in the sharks and rays, have no fear — no ticket is needed to go into the shop. Because so many of the guests want to return to the aquarium to buy something they saw during an earlier visit, the Gift Shop also can be accessed by shoppers directly from the lobby during regular operating hours.
“Newport Aquarium is an accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and a leader in global wildlife conservation,” Etter said. Our mission is to ‘Captivate, Educate and Advocate Conservation,’ and we try to reflect that in the exhibits and also in the Gift Shop.””
Dive Into Sales
Seeing as the Aquarium showcases thousands of animals from around the world, it makes sense that about 30 percent of the store sales are plush, with a large section of the store designated specifically to stuffed animals.
“”We encourage our cast members to communicate with the guests and ask them about their favorite exhibit,”” Etter said. “”Once parents and children identify their favorite animal, it is much easier for them to choose an item that correlates with their emotional connection from their experience. We also encourage the cast members to reconnect with the exhibits often, asking them to do a walk through the Aquarium, visit a new show, or check out a current promotion/event.””
Since the Aquarium has several events and promotions throughout the year, the store tries to tie their merchandise into the event. They increase their pirate merchandise in October during the Ghosts of Pirates Cove Halloween event and enhance their assortment of any animal that is being highlighted at a particular time.
“”Sweet Pea and Scooter, our rare shark rays, are good examples,”” Etter said. “”Newport Aquarium was the first aquarium in the Western Hemisphere to have a shark ray on display. Since it was such a unique animal, there was no ‘shark ray’ plush. We worked with our vendors to create a custom piece for us. We now carry a few styles of shark rays for our guests to choose from.””
Guests have a plethora of products to choose from in various price ranges. Etter said the top sellers have proven themselves historically, and she doesn’t see that changing dramatically in the future. Because shoppers are always looking for a good deal, two of their five top sellers include multiple elements, which are a great value for the guests. “”Keep it clean and simple,”” Etter advised. “”You need to appeal to the masses, not every guest. Too much selection will confuse your shoppers.””
Their No. 1 item by quantity is postcards (50 cents) and the No. 1 item by revenue is the personalized Newport Aquarium mugs ($7.99). The next four top sellers by revenue are the jellyfish yo-yo toy ($3.99), Poly Bag Aquatic (a bag of assorted aquatic pvc toys) ($10.99), a box of six to 10 fossilized shark teeth ($5.99), and a 20-inch great white shark stuffed animal ($19.99).
“”These have become staple items of our store and we make sure there is a massive presence of these items,”” Etter said. “”We maintain a narrow and deep assortment of all of our items. By doing this, we reduce the selection but enhance the displays with a large quantity of the product merchandised and create a ‘wow’ factor.””
The peak attendance for the Aquarium is from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and depending on the time of year, they have 10 to 25 employees working in the Newport Aquarium’s Gift Shop. The cast members go through an on-the-job training program that prepares them for success when they are eventually on their own. Managers go through the same training as the cast members but also have management training classes they must complete that are facilitated by the in-house training and development manager.
“”We communicate to our cast members what items are coming in and this gets them excited about the new merchandise before it even arrives,”” Etter said. “”We don’t practice aggressive selling techniques, but we do require aggressive hospitality from our cast members and management.
“”At the end of the day, I remind myself that we sell stuffed animals and toys that make a child’s face light up,”” continued Etter. “”Have fun doing it!”””