Smoky Mountain Sales
Ten stores satisfy visitors’ curiosity and interests
By Abby Heugel, Managing Editor
If you want to know anything about Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP), the shops are where you should be. With 10 different retail locations, the Great Smoky Mountains Association (GSMA) provides the most comprehensive, high-quality, up-to-date information and products related to the park – everything from maps to caps.
“Our partnership with the National Park Service is quite unique,” said Terry Maddox, GSMA executive director. “GSMA has a signed standard Cooperating Association Agreement authorizing us to sell goods and services in GSMNP.”
The main purpose of GSMA sales activities is to provide the public with interpretive and educational materials related to the national park system and other regional natural and cultural preserves, the National Park Service (NPS) and values or resources related to GSMNP. Through 2009, GSMA has contributed more than $21.9 million in aid.
“Sales are a vital component of any NPS educational operation,” Maddox said. “Aside from the good that they do through generating funds to enhance the interpretive program, they also provide the means for visitors to learn more about the themes presented at a particular site.”
He added that if the chief aim of interpretation is provocation, the stores provide a means of further satisfying the curiosity and interest that has been piqued on-site.
As CEO for GSMA, Maddox has an overall responsibility for all operations. It’s still a small enough organization that he’s involved in day-to-day operations at all levels, but with 37 full-time and 44 seasonal hourly staff members, they have a qualified retail management and product support staff that fill specific, critical roles in the organization.
It’s an organization that was chartered in 1953 as Great Smoky Mountains Natural History Association, a 501(c)(3) educational nonprofit corporation. On its 50th anniversary the name was shortened to Great Smoky Mountains Association.
“Our mission statement is the same,” Maddox said. “The GSMA supports the perpetual preservation of GSMNP and the national park system by promoting greater public understanding and appreciation through education, interpretation and research.”
To accomplish this, GSMA participates in a variety of activities, not the least of those being retail.
“While our financial high times are June through October, the national park has become a year-round destination,” Maddox said. “Our stores offer essentially the same array of products at each site, but each location has a unique physical setting to ensure that we do not have cookie-cutter store designs.”
The vast majority of products are unique to the stores, as visitors want items specific to their destination and visit. There is an in-house design staff involved in the development of GSMA-copyrighted products and two individuals who handle the buying needs and develop an array of products not designed by GSMA staff.
Since the stores are all about Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a particular store location may carry or feature items that relate to the section of the park they are near.
“For example,” Maddox said, “anything related to the Cades Cove section of the park sells best at the Cades Cove Visitor Center store than say, at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center store, which is still in the park but 50 miles from Cades Cove.”
The top-selling categories throughout the 10 locations are publications and theme products such as Smokies-branded food items, outdoor clothing, postcards and similar related offerings. They are the leading publisher of GSMNP information, including 40 book titles, 15 location-specific park maps and guides, seven self-guiding auto tour booklets, 10 self-guided nature trail leaflets, four yearly editions of the official park newspaper and an award-winning magazine series.
Park-specific children’s books, plush and Junior Ranger products are popular with the children, while adult best sellers include hiking guides, food, outdoor clothing and books related to the history of the park and surrounding communities. Maddox added that they attempt to develop and buy locally as much as possible, especially craft and food items, and attend a couple smaller trade shows each year in addition to the larger gift shows held each fall in Tennessee.
Maddox said they focus more on product development, as approximately 65 percent of Smokies visitors are repeat visitors.
“We do not re-merchandise the way more general retail stores do,” he explained. “The park storylines don’t change and we need to continue to provide products that tell the stories the NPS want visitors to know about.
“What we do focus on is continually looking for new items that relate to these stories,” he continued, “or we work to revise and update GSMA-produced products that relate to these stories. This is one of our biggest ongoing challenges, as I suspect it is for many retail businesses.”
With stores that range from 400 to 1,500 square feet, the store environment can be intense due to high visitor counts. In 2009, the Sugarlands Visitor Center store grossed $2.8 million with an average ticket of $19, so you can imagine that it was quite a busy place.
Creating special displays in the smaller stores can be a challenge, but Maddox said they’ve found that visitors generally place more importance/interest in any item displayed on a table as opposed to a bookshelf. Of course, no matter where it is, each display needs to be visually appealing.
“If you can get the visitor to stop and examine it, they will likely purchase one of more of the showcased items,” Maddox said. “Tabletop displays are a customer favorite, partially due to the three-dimensional aspect. Even if they are just looking at books, people seem to like to walk around a display and examine it from all sides.”
Retailers also have to examine new innovations from all sides, and Maddox believes park-specific mobile-device apps will be an additional sales revenue stream. He predicts it won’t replace the printed word, but will simply be another delivery system for content. The key will be to develop this content in a way the customer likes and then purchases it, rather than expecting it to be free.
“There is a lot of free mobile app content our there already,” Maddox said, “but much of it is so general and/or generic it is not worth the time to download, much less use. It will be critical to an organization’s success to develop and/or use content already available and be able to sell this information to enhance or strengthen revenue streams.”
Regardless of the location, the key is to know your audience and listen to them, developing the highest quality products possible that relate directly to your location. Maddox said it’s most important to simply be where the people are and offer as many products as makes sense.
And with 10 stores throughout the park, wherever the people are, there’s a store waiting to sell them those goods.