Under the Sea
Large or small, aquarium stores can make waves with creative solutions
Forget dolphin T-shirts. Savvy shoppers of all ages flock to aquarium gift shops large and small to find one-of-a-kind, show-stopping gifts. Today’s shops carry such a diverse and unique selection that many shoppers make a special trip to purchase something without even entering the aquarium itself.
Small space, big vision
With a touch tank, an aquatic nursery and an exploration center for children, the 76-year-old Cabrillo Marine Aquarium (CMA) in San Pedro, Calif. is a popular destination for families and school trips.
“In the spring, we have up to 25 school buses a day visiting our aquarium,” said Jean Steinmetz, manager of CMA Gift Shop. “We send letters to all the teachers offering them Treasure Bags ($5) and aquarium T-shirts ($10) for students to pre-order through their classrooms before they come to visit. We sell thousands of Treasure Bags a year.”
The 800-square-foot gift store staff maximizes every inch of space – slat walls, apparel hooks, glass shelves, round tables, plastic cubbies for plush and apparel and hooks from the ceiling – to display their items. Steinmetz lists mood necklaces and rings, custom CMA merchandise, plush animals, books and T-shirts as her biggest sellers.
“I’m very particular about my merchandise and order 95 percent of my inventory from Mart Show rooms or at gift shows,” Steinmetz said. “I don’t like to order online or from catalogs because I don’t want any surprises.”
Steinmetz said they have a lot of giftware that adults like to buy as gifts: jewelry, ceramics, glassware, small paintings and lamps, resin sculptures, seaside candles and toiletries, and educational books – all related to their mission statement and all proceeds going the educational programs at the aquarium. She suggests stocking items for all ages and every kind of person.
“Think out of the box; try to diversify prices and have a variety of merchandise,” she said. “Our prices range from 25 cents for aquatic tattoos to $195 for a handmade fossilized necklace from New Zealand. Find unique merchandise, price it reasonable and merchandise it in an interesting way.”
As the public face of Scripps Institution of Oceanography, part of the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), the Birch Aquarium gift shop also makes the most of the minimal space they have.
Keeping with the aquarium’s mission is to showcase ocean science, Susan Malk, who has managed the gift shop in La Jolla, Calif. for seven years, said the shop carries many books, plush animals, toys, T-shirts and sweatshirts and décor items.
“We have a very diverse market, so it’s fun to try and appeal to all those different kinds of clients,” Malk said. “We have kitchen towels, beautiful glass dishes associated with the ocean and glass paperweights with jellyfish inside.”
Malk said toys and children’s books sell best, and she’s especially enthusiastic about “What Color Would You Be To Hide In The Sea,” the recently published book inspired by a Scripps camouflage exhibit.
“We had wonderful photographs and poems on the walls, so we (used that material and) published the book ourselves,” Malk explained. “In the back of the book, there’s information about all the creatures we featured. Lots of other aquariums, including Aquarium of the Pacific, Dallas Aquarium and Tennessee Aquarium buy it from us. It’s something we’re very proud of, and it’s unique to our aquarium.”
Working with just 1,000 square feet means Malk must get creative with displays. They cross-market books displayed with gift items, and Malk tends to have a broader inventory – not piles of the same plush animal, but more of a selection.
Dishtowels are popular because tourists can pack them, so they’re selling very well. Malk also saw a lot of ocean-themed towels this year, and a lot of seahorses, which are a big thing for them because they have a large seahorse exhibit.
“I like things that are just a little bit unusual, things that feature an unusual animal like an octopus or a seahorse, rather than just dolphins, which you tend to see everywhere,” she said. “I’d like people to come here and see puppets or plush they’ve never seen anywhere else, or a beautiful glass octopus. I don’t just reorder again; I switch things up and keep them looking fresh.”
Strength in Numbers
Larger stores take a different approach. San Diego-based Event Network owns and operates eight aquarium gift shops across the U.S.: Georgia Aquarium, Chicago’s John G. Shedd Aquarium, Mystic Aquarium & Institute for Exploration in Connecticut, Baltimore’s National Aquarium, New England Aquarium, Seattle Aquarium, South Carolina Aquarium and the Florida Aquarium.
“Each of these stores are completely different at each location in terms of size, look and feel,” said Jerry Gilbert, Event Network’s vice-president of marketing. “Sizes range from 2,000 to 5,000 square feet. We customize our stores and merchandise assortments to reflect and celebrate the content and mission of each of our partners.”
As brand stewards for each of its partners, Event Network connects key exhibits to its in-store feature presentations. It may be beluga whales at one location, Pacific white-sided dolphins at another and emperor penguins at yet another. In addition to and customized product and packaging to “brand” each store, they use appropriate props and graphics to make them even more interesting and unique to their surroundings.
“Guests at these aquariums are often inspired to take home a piece of their experience from the gift shops,” he added. “We sell merchandise to every demographic and develop product assortments that address every category, from toys and plush to books, fine gifts, home décor and jewelry.”
Four in One
The Monterey Bay Aquarium (MBA) offers visitors four times the shopping fun: its flagship store focuses on apparel, gifts, books, jewelry and collectables for adults and kids, while another store on the main level stocks children’s books, plush, toys and clothing. Both upper-level stores are more exhibit-specific – products at the Splash Zone and Seahorses Store include everything from post cards to plush penguin backpacks.
“Our stores have graphics and color with good direct lighting and flexible fixtures,” noted Andrew Fischer, general manager of merchandising, who joined the team in 2004. He added that trends in apparel include small name drops and logos, with blues taking over from purple as this year’s hot color.
Items under $20 continue to grow as a category, and Fischer said guests want small, quality gifts to take home for themselves and friends as reminders of their visit. They’ve also seen a small surge in kitchen items, including small accessories such as cutting boards, utensils, dish towels, pot holders and oven mitts.
“Plush animals doubling as pillows are very popular,” Fischer said, “as are high-end, handmade plush created from natural and reclaimed materials, such as sweaters. We also have plush made from organic materials coming from China, where they have introduced the first certified organic factory.”
Other best-selling products include canvas bags from Bungalow 360, children’s board books that cost less than $10 and cookbooks. In jewelry, Fischer noted that less expensive metals, such as pewter, offer attractive price points for jewelry buyers, as do handmade fair trade products made from sustainable materials such as recycled glass and tagua nuts.
To capitalize on its colorful range of products, MBA staff goes vertical.
“We’re using more height in our main store, with upper wall displays and presentations with aquarium-coordinated banners,” Fischer explained. “Telling a complete story from our display feature tables to include apparel, gifts, some accessories and books ties them all together.”
Fischer’s team attends many shows, from New York to Las Vegas, and visits local shows in San Francisco and in the Monterey area to find local vendors.
“We take pride in knowing we represent the MBA, and our team strives to offer the highest quality, selection and ‘fun factor’ possible while delivering extraordinary experiences for our guests,” Fischer said, adding that aquarium gift shops should “hire the right managers and supervisors along with the best buyers and administrative team.”
Because with the right team, it doesn’t matter what size your store is-you can get through the most challenging times (while remaining) smiling and positive. After all, guests deserve one-of-a-kind service to go along with those one-of-a-kind, show-stopping gifts.
By Wendy Helfenbaum
Special to Museums & More