museums&MORE Spring 2015
The Curiosity Shop: Where merchandise sparks the inquisitive spirit

By Leigh Jajuga, Assistant Editor

With an array of products inspiring wonderment and a thirst for knowledge, there’s nothing curious about the success of the Grand Rapids Public Museum’s Curiosity Shop.

The two-decade-old gift store features an eclectic assortment of regional gifts and retail management know-how that makes it distinct.

The Curiosity Shop is really unique because our museum is unique,” manager Hannah Novak said. “We aren’t limited by a specific theme or genre, such as science, art or architecture, but can encompass everything associated with West Michigan.”

The Curiosity Shop is celebrating its 20th year at its scenic downtown Grand Rapids location, which overlooks the Grand River. Sales growth has remained steady throughout the years, allowing the shop’s comprehensive selection of products to grow and, most importantly, stay profitable.

“It’s becoming a gift shop for the community,” Novak said, “and we’re working hard to create that variety of merchandise and product to have it be more of a destination shopping spot instead of the end-of-a-museum-tour gift shop.”

With items ranging from build-your-own biplanes and locally made jewelry to an assortment of children’s items, such as freeze-dried Astronaut Ice Cream and 70-inch plush snakes, the Curiosity Shop includes a wide range of consumer interests.

According to Novak, there are more than 250,000 artifacts the museum has to offer and the gift shop’s product goal is to reflect this significant diversity in retail items.
“These hundreds of thousands of artifacts, documents and historical photographs inspire merchandise to represent the museum, Grand Rapids, Michigan, and the world,” she said.

Play to learn, learn to play

One way the Curiosity Shop appeals to customers is by creating an interactive atmosphere with displays lining the store entrance. These displays include an iconic mechanical horse named “Sandy,” a custom Penny Press machine, which imprints images of the museum into a penny with the crank of a lever, and a large piece of the Berlin Wall with an informative, commemorative plaque beneath it.

“”Having a display item for guests to interact with is always very helpful and it’s fun to see others experience a product to validate purchasing it,” Novak said.

Novak noted the importance of frequently rearranging these displays in accordance with museum exhibits as a way to not only create a new experience for each customer’s visit but also as a way maximize foot traffic and sales.

“We rearrange the store often to keep it fresh by revising displays to reflect popular and exhibit-related items,” Novak said. “Our exhibits department is very creative and has made custom displays shaped like trees for plush animals to add interest and whimsy.”

Whether your interests lie in astronomy, geology, entomology or even literature — the Curiosity Shop’s small library and cozy reading nook invites all ages to engage their gift store-inspired fascinations.

“Curiosity is the foundation of our brand, and all that we offer here at the museum —it’s a place of learning for all,” Novak said. “We bring curiosity through the entire museum experience, including into the gift shop.”

Local approach

One aspect of the Curiosity Shop’s success is the approach Novak takes as Michigan-centric buyer.

“I think local products are very important to most people who come in, many of whom are looking for USA- or Michigan-made items,” Novak said. “One of our most popular items is made with Michigan mint or Michigan cherry juice.

“It’s a perfect impulse buy for visitors to come in and buy a 30-cent chocolate, and they’re happy to be supporting Michigan at the same time.”

Novak also seeks local vendors for novelty items that other buyers might purchase in bulk directly from a manufacturer, such as stones and fossils.

“We have a local rocks and mineral vendor who goes out and looks for different rocks from (Lake) Michigan, Lake Superior and all the surrounding areas and brings in that local, unique item,” she said.

While celebrating work of local artists by showcasing pieces in the store, Novak also seeks out Michigan artisans to find merchandise. Welcoming artists to reach out via email about their products is one way Novak comes to carry regionally made products, but she does a lot of footwork to seek out artisans as well.

That includes going to the local art school to get input from students on which artists they would like to see brought in to help support Michigan. She also frequents museum exhibits to inspire ideas for products to carry and local artisans whose creations might correlate with the newest installations.

Novak also takes an eco-friendly approach to purchasing products whenever possible. Another of the store’s most popular items is made from old advertising materials through upcycling, the process of reusing materials to make a higher quality product.

“One of the most unique items we currently carry are banner bags made entirely from the banners we hang from the building advertising the latest exhibits,” Novak said. “We send them to a local company in Traverse City to be made and the quality is amazing.

“You really can carry out a piece of the museum from the store.”

New Tips for New Management

Novak is no stranger to the retail industry and has a plethora of management expertise she is bringing to the table.

“I grew up in a family-owned business, so retail has always been a part of my life,” Novak said. “Post-college I took a management job as a buyer for a university bookstore, where I was for four years. This all gave me great insight into consumer behavior and what sells.”

While first coming into a new management opportunity, Novak emphasized the importance of getting to know your customer base on a conversational level.

“Really study, listen to what your consumers are asking for, listen to any comments they have about price or quality or selection and take the time to let it sink in and start looking at everything and anything, all the [product] catalogs,” she said.

On top of familiarizing yourself with your customer demographic, Novak suggested staying cognizant of price points and not being afraid to try new products.

“I always keep minimums and costs in mind so that we aren’t overstocking our backroom. With buying, it’s a risky job … but you have to take those small risks,” Novak said. “That’s why you look at minimums and costs, because then you can afford to try one thing out and if that’s not the right thing, mark it down, get it out of there and get some new products in.”

As a manager whose responsibilities include reflecting the museum experience by purchasing a varying range of products, Novak also stressed the importance of listening to consumers as another way to gauge the store’s success.

“Ask your guests lots of questions about their experience touring the museum and why they are in the area — you’ll never know if maybe they came solely to shop at your store.” Novak said. “Then you know that what you are doing is working and to keep reaching for the next possibilities within your store.”

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