museums&MORE Summer 2013
The Maritime Aquarium Gift Shop

Where the sea and the Sound are put on display

A purchase from the Maritime Aquarium Gift Shop in Norwalk, Conn. is more than a great souvenir — it’s also a great way to give back.

A vibrant and educational learning environment, the mission of the Maritime Aquarium is to inspire people of all ages to appreciate Long Island Sound and protect it for all generations. How do they do it? Through living exhibits, marine science, environmental education and a Maritime Aquarium Gift Shop that provides visitors with a piece of the aquarium to take home as a memento of that unique experience.

We visualize our gift shop as if it is another permanent exhibit,” said Diana Varon, gift shop assistant manager and buyer. “The majority of our product encourages our customers to learn more about conserving the environment, marine science and Long Island Sound. Each display is designed not only to portray our merchandise as a desirable decorative item, but also to remind them of what they learned through their visit.”

Being the only aquarium in Connecticut that focuses on Long Island Sound, they offer a wide range of items with under-the-sea and nautical themes for visitors of all ages with all the proceeds used internally to help fund educational programs, research and animal care.

Whether it is a personal indulgence or a keepsake, the aquarium gift shop has something for everyone.

See the Sea
Located at the front of The Maritime Aquarium, the gift shop strives to offer visitors a wide array of souvenirs and gifts, including key chains, mugs, toys, plush animals, jewelry and higher-end home décor.

The shop is divided into different areas, with the right area geared toward children with displays of toys, educational items and plush animals representing creatures from their permanent and special aquarium exhibits.

“In this area, we use our front feature walls and tables to creatively display our newest items, maximizing the customer contact,” Varon said. “Next is our plush animals section, displaying all kinds of animals seen throughout the aquarium and also found in Long Island Sound. Our toys section carries a wide variety of products for kids of all ages, like entertaining games, science projects and imaginative craft activities all based on an aquatic theme.”

The shop’s left section offers merchandise appealing to a more mature audience, featuring apparel consisting of logo-bearing T-shirts, jackets, sweatshirts and hats. This area also contains home décor, such as glass decorations, tabletop items, wall art and other souvenir items like frames and ornaments. Set within the cabinet displays of their payment center is their featured jewelry collection made by a local artist.

Toward the back of the store is an area where visitors will find a generous display devoted to rocks and gems of all kinds, including activity kits and “treasure” packets featuring such items as shark teeth and colored rocks. Here they also present customized mugs and nautical/aquatic-themed key chains and other small souvenir items. They also offer a big collection of books related to sea animals and underwater creatures.

Varon said customized items are also very popular and important to their business and that people tend to collect logo souvenirs from each place they visit that in turn serve as little mementos of their experiences. These sell in the form of collectables such as magnets, postcards, key chains and mugs that usually are purchased by people visiting out of state.

“Customer satisfaction is our first priority,” Varon said. “It is our job to send our visitors home pleased with their purchase. Toward that aim, our primary focus is on the level of service we provide to each and every visitor.”

Close to Home
Part of that service includes knowing what sells best and how to make those items accessible. Plush animals and toys representing their permanent animals and special exhibits are the must popular sellers among their youngest guests. These help them to relate their experience to their favorite animal, with turtles, seals, sharks, meerkats and otters tending to be the most popular items.

Big sellers also include water-inspired science experiments, LED toys, aquatic-inspired youth jewelry and fashionable apparel for each different season. Also of interest to many are souvenirs related to geology and nature — for example, stones and rocks made into collectors’ items.

“We help to maximize the sales of these items by merchandising them by groups,” Varon said. “When it comes to staging the store, we design our displays to allow customers a lot of hands-on-contact to test and feel what item is best for them. For example, plush animals, toys and nature-themed items have their own section or area. This helps customers to easily choose from a variety of items.”

New exhibits at the aquarium require and inspire a change in merchandise. Often they use their front displays as focal points to celebrate the newest exhibit, as that helps to build excitement for the aquarium’s new offerings and show a unified message or focus throughout the facility.

“For example, in the summer of 2012, the aquarium offered a special exhibit featuring a large rare albino alligator,” Varon said. “The gift shop supported this new display by stocking a plush white alligator customized to wear a Maritime Aquarium-logoed sweatshirt.

“The Maritime Aquarium also hosts many weekend birthday parties for children,” Varon continued. “And our customized goodie bags are given special attention as we work closely with customers to create the best party favor for their special occasion.”

Because the Maritime Aquarium is set in populous and affluent Fairfield County, Conn.— less than an hour from the largest metropolitan area in America — they have a large local audience from which to draw visitors.

And while tourists traveling through are critical to their business, Varon said in the last few years they have welcomed more local guests than out-of-state visitors. People are traveling shorter distances and taking “stay-cations,” but they also are encouraged by a movement of consumers who actively seek to support local businesses.

“This gives us the challenge of changing the gift shop’s displays more frequently, to keep our returning customers interested, tourists happy and staff excited and challenged,” Varon said.

They also offer occasional discounts and coupon promotions to help bring in new business. These are made available through social media, their website and emails sent to a list of 34,000 aquarium members, friends and visitors who have expressed an interest in their promotions.

“We want to draw people in so they can learn the importance of maintaining Long Island Sound and its creatures for years to come as a valuable treasure for future generations,” Varon said. “What a child sees during an aquarium visit — and the plush seal that he or she sleeps with for weeks afterward — will help to encourage more and more stewards for our environment.”

By Abby Heugel
Managing Editor

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