Located in Atlanta, the Georgia Aquarium offers visitors a fascinating adventure — special in-person encounters, virtual exploration and multiple retail environments. The aquarium is recognized as the largest aquarium in the western hemisphere, according to Marcus Gould, store director at Georgia Aquarium, and welcomes more than 2.5 million visitors per year.
In October 2020, Georgia Aquarium opened a new exhibit — Sharks! Predators of the Deep that is the home to “fierce and fascinating new residents,” which includes hammerhead, sand tiger, silvertip and zebra sharks, as well as round ribbontail rays.
“The thrilling interaction experience features a dive cage, where visitors can be submerged in the tank, and a wading pool where visitors can walk with Rays and Zebra Sharks,” Gould said.
The aquarium not only offers guests a thrilling, up-close experience with sea life, it also provides guests a unique shopping experience. The nonprofit retail environment is “committed to inspiring awareness and preservation of our ocean and aquatic animals” Gould shared.
“In addition to a wonderful selection of custom-designed Georgia Aquarium offerings, visitors to Atlanta will also find an assortment of specialty items that reflect the unique character of the city. The stores’ unique offerings make this a notable shopping destination and a one of a kind shopping experience for guests to commemorate their time here,” Gould said.
Three permanent stores and a seasonal, mobile kiosk offer a variety of options for visitors to find merchandise. Additionally, shoppers can purchase merchandise on the Georgia Aquarium’s website.
“The largest of the three spaces is newly remodeled and located as you exit,” Gould described. “Another shop is located near the Dolphin Experience, and is our smallest store. Sand Dollar, is in the main rotunda. All the stores have been updated in the last few years. During peak season, we complement the animal educational shows with roaming sales.”
The peak shopping season is during the summer, although overall retail business is steady throughout the year. “The holidays are also a fun time for guests to visit due to the festive decorations, seasonal extras the aquarium offers, and the holiday merchandise we carry in the store,” Gould emphasized.
Gould provided more details about the Aquarium’s diverse retail offerings.
Describe how retail sales support the aquarium and its mission.
Marcus Gould: The Aquarium’s mission is to inspire awareness and preservation of our ocean and aquatic animals worldwide. A portion of the proceeds from purchases made at the gift shops (on-premise and online), goes directly back to the aquarium, allowing the continuation of groundbreaking research initiatives, educational programs, and conservation efforts. But there’s even more to it! The shopping experience creates the opportunity for conversation, and to reinforce key learnings. Guests are exposed to a variety of offerings such as designer reusable bags, apparel made from recycled plastic bottles, plush redesigned without plastic beads, and a host of cool alternatives to single-use plastics. These offerings encourage a more sustainable lifestyle, and underscore the importance of protecting our natural environment through the choices we make. The gift shop plays an important role in influencing behaviors and attitudes about our planet, and in this way directly and indirectly supports the aquarium’s mission.
What makes your retail environment unique and successful?
MG: The store environments are unique and purpose-built for the Aquarium, so it’s the uniqueness of the Georgia Aquarium itself that make the shopping experience so special! The Aquarium’s unique brand is reflected in product selection, store design and its locality. We combine all of these specific attributes and integrate retail best practices for a one-of-a-kind shopping experience that isn’t replicated anywhere else. The retail environment is highly complementary to the exhibits but guests will experience the store in their own way.
How many employees do you have to service customers in the store and handle the online order fulfillments?
The store is staffed with a store leadership team consisting of a store director, two assistant directors, and between four to six team leads. The core team member numbers fluctuate throughout the year based on the season and can consist of anywhere between 20 to over 50 people. Historically, summers require additional team members to accommodate travelers, however, when timed ticketing measures are in place, store traffic flow is controlled to a steady, predictable pace and volume.
Online purchases are fulfilled by our onsite team members as we receive them. We have a team of two with the store leadership team supporting during peak seasons such as holidays and Cyber Monday.
Describe your product mix and how items relate to the exhibits at the aquarium.
MG: Guests will find curated assortments across many categories and interests, including: books and media, clothing and accessories, toys and games, home accents, and souvenirs.
The store is arranged into specific niches and stories to reflect the exhibits and celebrate our residents — sea life and local Atlanta residents alike! For example, a large wall is dedicated to our magnificent Beluga whales, while African penguins take the spotlight with a presentation of eco-friendly plush and apparel. Of course, all things Sharks! have captured attention with a main display focusing on sustainability and supporting the aquarium when you shop.
Our Georgia Aquarium Craft Pub area features laid back style, caps, and beer accessories paying homage to local breweries, while the “ATL” store-within-a-store features regional streetwear that reflects pride in this great city.
Do retail offerings include branded merchandise?
They sure do! Our collection of custom Georgia Aquarium apparel includes t-shirts, hoodies, caps, and even branded specialty socks – with many design options and styles for men, women and children. Artistic designs such as Turtle Sunset, long-sleeve sustainably-made Dolphin Waves, and Where the Big Dawgs Eat are among the most popular! Guests can also bring home Georgia Aquarium mugs, to-go tumblers, and easy-to-pack souvenirs like branded keychains and the Georgia Aquarium Guidebook. The Atlanta Brewing Company also teams with the Aquarium to produce limited run seasonal beers. Also the merchandise that corresponds with each beer is popular.
How do you know what types of merchandise displays will work best — is there a specific formula you use to display products?
Our merchandising approach closely associates with the aquarium exhibits and experiences, so guests will see custom displays like the shark cage and a dedicated penguin area to reinforce support for these amazing animals and create teachable moments. Subtle design details are used to reinforce the ocean theme, such as the Coral Canyon inspired design that uses overhead wreath structures to imply a sense of depth.
We also rely on what we know works and trends in the aquarium industry. Given the high volume at Georgia Aquarium, our displays are designed to make the offerings easy to access. For example, product tables are multi-tiered to put deep sea products on full view.
How often are displays rotated?
Displays are changed frequently to complement what is currently happening at the Aquarium. To support an event, a new birth, or aquarium milestone, we create tailored merchandise displays and position them in prime real estate locations (i.e. front and center) that highlight those key topics.
Do you have any display tips you would like to share?
MG: Visually speaking, it’s important to arrange a display that invites guests to look, and involves engaging a variety of senses and tools — clear and compelling signage to deliver the message, relatable themes, and a certain amount of order.
Consider multiple eye-levels and angles for guests of all ages. Displaying items of different heights, stacking in a way that adds visual interest, and arranging by color, mission-supported causes, or stories can also be very compelling.
From a practical standpoint, versatile displays that will still look great when product is changed out are useful so that the team doesn’t have to reset as often. This is particularly important for high-volume locations.
How do you market to local visitors?
MG: Our stunning, newly-expanded building located in the Centennial Park District of downtown Atlanta makes us pretty hard to miss, so the aquarium is already off to a great start in terms of awareness. Local media picked up on the aquarium’s expansion plans and Sharks! exhibit opening, which helped further spread the word and stir enthusiasm at the local level. We love our local guests, and Aquarium Members get great discounts on animal encounters and interactions.
We’re also lucky in that the Aquarium’s world-class reputation draws visitors organically. The television show ‘The Aquarium’ on Discovery Communication Inc.’s Animal Planet channel, introduced a new audience of millions to the amazing work that goes on behind the scenes every day at Georgia Aquarium.
How do you handle ordering products for seasonal inventory?
MG: We utilize a sophisticated system for supply chain, and our data and analytics inform our purchasing decisions. The result is higher customer satisfaction because we’re listening and offering more of what our guests love! Our purchasing is never “set it and forget it;” it’s a dynamic process that ensures we always keep things fresh and introduce variety for return customers.
Do you stock different merchandise for customers who shop online?
MG: The online shop offers an edited selection of top-sellers, making it easy to find what you’re looking for and to check out smoothly. While there is some overlap with what is available online and in store, you’ll have to visit the Aquarium in person to explore the full selection. That said, if you don’t find what you’re looking for online, or see something special that you want shipped during your visit, our staff welcomes requests and we’re happy to help, in person or digitally.
How do you reach out to customers to let them know about new products in both the physical store and online store?
The store is truly an extension of the Aquarium. We work closely with the Aquarium’s marketing team to highlight new product, seasonal offerings, special sales, and commemorative moments in their newsletters and social media channels. When new product is available in-store, the aquarium will send notifications to Twitter followers and emails to members. For example, during penguin hatch season, the communications featured our penguin product story.
Do you want to share any information on how the retail environment coped with the pandemic?
MG: In store, we use a variety of methods to keep guests safe and confident about shopping in the store. First, we abide by the Aquarium’s rules around safety and conduct for both team members and guests, which include temperature checks and mask wearing for being on the premises. Frequent cleaning schedules and visible cleaning is now part of our daily store hygiene routine.
For the main store, the store design and layout lends itself to an open flow, allowing plenty of space between shoppers and a clear line of sight to view and reach products without having to touch extensively. Product demos were removed from shelves, and floor spacer decals were added to help guests gauge their distance between one another. Contactless payment options also proved to be a welcome solution at checkout; one that shoppers prefer and expect to remain.
Above all, keeping a positive attitude and appreciating everyone who comes out to visit us has been the key to coping during the pandemic. We all learned that we’re in this together – and showing kindness, patience and gratitude is the best means of thriving in challenging times. When guests shop and support the animals and Aquarium programs, it gives us hope for the future of our planet, and for that we remain thankful.