museums&MORE Winter 2012
The Science of a Gift Store

Experiment for successful sales

What are the scientific odds that, in 1797, the first members of the amateur scientific society known as The Maryland Academy of Sciences could imagine that their informal discussions might one day result in a three-story waterfront building filled with full-sized dinosaur skeletons and giant, mechanical blue crabs?

One of the knowledgeable staff members at Baltimore’s Maryland Science Center might be able to calculate those odds for you. Helpful nerds are scattered around the Inner Harbor’s interactive museum like the very stars once studied by those learned men. Each employee is ready and eager to answer questions or fit a child with a parachute so the pint-sized future scientist can sprint down the hall and experience the effects of wind drag.

Some of the early members of the Academy of Sciences, including such notable gents as Rembrandt, might be more shocked by the vast array of toys, books and kits featured at the Maryland Science Center’s gift store than the IMAX theatre or wearable space suits. While their own offspring busied themselves with sticks and hoops, today it isn’t unusual for a child to leave the museum with a working telescope or model airplane.

“Everything we sell is to encourage our mission,” said Donna Plitt, director of retail operations at the Maryland Science Center store.

Exhibit A
The mission of the Maryland Science Center is to create awareness of the importance of science in our lives by engaging visitors with exciting educational experiences. The Center aims to motivate youth to pursue careers in science and technology, using exhibits as varied as a bed of nails to a machine that imitates the sounds of the human body – guaranteed to inspire giggles.

To improve flow and space, The Science Store moved to the front of the glass and steel building six years ago. This not only put toys and kits at the forefront of the visitor’s experience, but also opened an additional entrance allowing additional access for school groups.

The doorway facing into the Center’s interactive areas uses large, colorful displays to temporarily lure children away from Newton’s Alley; a learning center dedicated to sound, light and motion. This sort of tactic is a necessity when competing against string-less harps, touchable clouds and a chair that allows kids to hoist themselves to the ceiling.

In the off-chance that a distracted child misses one of the store’s entrances, Plitt has stationed various glass display booths throughout the Center, each featuring highlights of items available at the shop. The displays reflect science themes available at the Center every day, as well as gift items relating to specialized traveling exhibits.

“Most recently, we had a large traveling display about shipwrecks,” Plitt said. “We set up themed glass cases and sold items directly in our store, rather than creating and manning another shop just for the exhibit.”
Timed near the release of Disney’s latest “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie, Plitt watched shipwreck-themed magnets, mugs, T-shirts, hats, jewelry and coins fly off the shelves.

Whether it is dinosaurs or physics that captures a visitor’s imagination, odds are good a bevy of related products await purchase at the gift store. Like spaceflight? Take home glow-in-the-dark constellations or a “Rocket Racer” game. Earth sciences more up your alley? Choose from Fool’s Gold or fossils. Top everyday sellers include science kits and books, but no matter what the interest, every child can find a little part of the Science Center to take home for further exploration.

If visitors don’t see something they want, the shop will often special order or add a requested item to inventory.

While the Center has tried product development in the past, they find that the volume and expense of custom creations can be prohibitive.

“There are so many good products out there,” Plitt said. “We’re always brainstorming and researching for new ideas. We try and stay as related to science as possible; we pick and choose what items most compliment the exhibits.”

Hands-On Experiments
While Plitt has noticed some small decline in sales due to the suffering economy, she doesn’t feel the Center has really suffered.

“Our audience tends to be better educated and better off financially,” Plitt said. “Where we have seen a decrease in sales is in purchases by school group children and during camp-in events. The kids don’t arrive with the pocket money they once did.”

Plitt has seen the Internet steal a small portion of the Center’s business as well. “People are pretty savvy,” said Plitt. “A little more often we’ll hear parents tell a child that they’ll find an item later online, but it doesn’t seriously affect our sales. Most people are impulse buyers. They see it and they want it.”

Promising to find items online later may be an attempt to find lower prices, or simply a tactic for distracting a child from an item entirely. Either way, Plitt is determined to experiment with Internet sales. The Science Center is currently an Amazon.com Associate, which allows them to take a percentage of traffic they send from their own website to the ecommerce giant. Currently, only one item, a $226 Celestron Sky Scout Personal Planetarium, is available from the Science Center’s website at www.mdsci.org, but Plitt plans to expand their Internet efforts.

“I’d love to see a large online offering from the store, but we’re not quite there yet,” Plitt said. “We do ship out and do a fair amount of mailing. We have a very minimal staff for the time and effort that is required for building a strong online presence, but it definitely seems like a good idea and we plan to expand.”

For now, Plitt trains the staff to make the store is as fun as possible, to interact with the customer and be sure every question is answered.

“We have a very knowledgeable staff,” Plitt said. “And if a staff member can’t answer, we find a supervisor to with the information we need.”

Thanks to the captive audience and ease of impulse buying, the gift store has little need for coupons or other regular specials. Maryland Science Center members do get a 10 percent discount on purchases, and while there are no seasonal product offerings, the member discount amount is doubled for one week during the holiday season. The hope of the Center is that the extra savings will encourage parents to add a few science-related items to the usual array of video games, dolls and sports equipment.

Plitt said that overall, the key to her success is the predictability of her audience.

“Stay within your market and your mission,” she said. “That’s difficult to do sometimes. People often experiment and try to go outside their market in an attempt to find new sales, but normally it doesn’t work.”

Thanks to the very specific theme of the Maryland Science Center, Plitt can narrow in on what visitors want by the time they have enjoyed the many interactive exhibits.

“People who come here know what they want. They expect to see science-related products, and that is what we provide.”

Rembrandt and the boys would be proud.

By Amy Vansant
Special to Museums & More





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