museums&MORE Winter 2012
Wild Things Museum Store

Where products keep a natural heritage alive

According to Sarah Wilcox, Wild Things Museum Store manager at the Virginia Living Museum in Newport News, Va., the Commonwealth of Virginia is blessed with an “uncommon-wealth” of natural wonders, among the most diverse in the country. And at the Virginia Living Museum (VLM), this natural heritage comes alive.

“The VLM is a private, nonprofit museum and education center dedicated to connecting people to nature through educational experiences that promote conservation,”
Wilcox said. “We are one of only 12 institutions in the country accredited by both the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the American Association of Museums.”

That dedication extends to the Wild Things Museum Store, where the mission is to enhance the museum’s revenues while offering visitors tangible mementos of their experience at the VLM. The merchandise mirrors the VLM’s broad exhibit range: animals, plants, minerals and astronomy through plush, toys, books, home décor, jewelry and gemstones.

“We find that the hands-on experience of gift shows, warehouse and rep visits are the best way to find unusual items that fit both our mission and our customers’ interests and budgets,” Wilcox said. “After finding that ‘perfect’ product, we research it online to ensure that it’s not also found in chain or online stores. Our visitors are getting a one-of-a-kind experience at the museum; it’s our responsibility to continue that experience when they visit our store.”

Youthful Offerings
The Wild Things Museum Store itself is 1,400 square feet of organically displayed products that reflect the mission of connecting people to nature through education. The focal point is a large, man-made tree showcasing plush, books and kits themed to specific exhibits. Stepped wooden crates next to the tree hold plush animals from ghost crabs to sea turtles, opossums, bobcats, river otters, eagles and more. Small tables and baskets add flexibility to toy and plush displays.

“The VLM is a family-oriented destination, educating and entertaining toddlers, teens, parents and grandparents, along with school groups, tour buses and visitors from all over the world,” Wilcox said. “As such, we emphasize the ‘child-within’ factor, offering items that appeal to children and adults for fun as well as education, and vary products and prices from 25-cent custom tattoos to $400 meteors. Displays create an impact by bringing together clothing, books, plush and toys with a single theme, such as dinosaurs, butterflies or red wolves.”

Glass interior and exterior walls give the store lots of light and add sparkle to butterfly wind chimes and dragonfly sun catchers. To maximize space, they hang garden flags along the soffits and use the back wall for posters, animal photos and larger wall art. Freestanding slatwall units offer custom souvenirs, children’s jewelry, under $5 nature toys, science kits, minerals, field guides, puzzles and clothing. Metal columns around the perimeter hold logo and animal magnets and lighted glass shelves and cases highlight local artisan bird pottery, Jamestown Glassworks vases, crab, otter and heron sculptures and gemstone jewelry.

“Natural-looking plush and nature-oriented jewelry are our bestsellers by far, followed by toys, clothing and home décor,” Wilcox said. “We recently added a ‘Small Plush’ category consisting of under $9 versions of river otters, bobcats, eagles and almost every animal available in the larger sizes, on a separate spinner. It has been hugely successful.”

Exclusive items include custom magnets, original bookmarks, postcards, T-shirts and souvenirs featuring photographs of their own animals. This year they also published “Wild About Animals,” a book about the museum, its history and the native Virginia animals within it written by Page Hayhurst, their executive director, with photos donated by Karl Rebensdorf, one of their talented volunteers.

Youth-oriented and mid-priced jewelry make up about 18 percent of their sales, about half of which comes from Cool Jewels International. Animal mood rings and necklaces are always popular, along with fossil shark tooth jewelry. The specific type of animal that sells varies and often reflects the current special exhibit, but dinosaurs are always popular. With vendor partners, they have also developed plush red wolves and bobcats. While not exclusive, these are extremely popular.

“Activity kits, puzzles and books that parents and children can enjoy together seem to work well,” Wilcox said. “For more sophisticated buyers, we carry higher-end jewelry, animal sculpture, custom hand-made mugs, T-shirts, outerwear and field guides. We have recently found local artisans of pottery and glass whose work fits with our mission and we’re also expanding our selections of “Made in USA” products. Periodically, we will gather all these related souvenirs into a centralized display focused on the VLM experience.”

The Real Deal
That experience includes a digital planetarium theater with state-of-the-art programs that explore the universe and formal gardens and landscape plantings that display one of the most extensive collections of native plants in Virginia. The Conservation Garden and Goodson Living Green House demonstrates ways to build, garden and live green and the museum’s professional educators provide grade-level targeted natural and space science classes geared to national science standards.

All of this means searching out merchandise for the store that reflects this broad scope is of utmost importance. For plush and replicas, Wilcox said they not only find the usual foxes, bears and deer, but horseshoe crabs, vultures, bobcats, great blue herons, sea turtles and sharks.

“Experiments with pastel animals and abstract jewelry fail because our visitors expect our products to mirror the real animals in the museum,” Wilcox said. “Books and field guides cover the lives of animals, plus rocks and minerals, native wildflowers, green living and the night sky. From recycling kits to telescopes, gemstone jewelry to collectible minerals, wind-up insects to great horned owl puppets, our shoppers find the unusual, and it’s native to Virginia.”

Two traveling exhibits each year require themed merchandise specific to those exhibits, and special displays draw in more customers for the exhibit-themed products.

“We have temporary three-month exhibits in the spring and summer. Because these exhibits may cover topics beyond our usual mission, we will purchase specialized products that relate to the specific exhibit and display them separately,” Wilcox said. “Every other summer, we have a robotic dinosaurs exhibit, which is always great fun and a terrific draw, adding 7 to 10 percent to our bottom line.

“We find that dinosaur replicas, dig-up kits and T-shirts are constant bestsellers, while dinosaur plush don’t sell quite as well,” she continued. “Having different exhibits and merchandise provides a nice change of pace for us and for our customers, but the real challenge is in stocking just enough product so that supplies are depleted or gone when the exhibit closes.”

But whether it’s a permanent or temporary exhibit that they’re exploring, visitors can be sure that the Wild Things Museum Store will be focused on offering them tangible mementos of their experience at the VLM – something that will keep that natural heritage alive.

By Abby Heugel
Managing Editor

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