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Aimee Hayden-Roderiques, natural science educator and aquarium director at the Maine State Aquarium in West Boothbay Harbor, Maine. Lower priced custom souvenirs do well for the attraction’s shop.
By Donna Cavanagh
quariums not only want to thrill visitors with the wonders of the sea and rivers, but they want to educate them on the importance of conservation as well. One of the most important tools in driving home the message of conservation is the aquarium gift shop with its custom merchandise.

"Our gift shop reflects our mission," said Kathy Zagzebski, executive director of the National Marine Life Center in Buzzards Bay, Mass., and co-buyer for the gift shop. "Through the merchandise in our store, we try to teach visitors about the environment and the importance of marine life in our own lives. The merchandise not only gives our visitors a remembrance of their day, but it is a permanent reminder of the National Marine Life Center's commitment to conservation and education."

Since the National Marine Life Center is located on Cape Cod, it is only open about four months of the year. An independent, non-profit rehabilitation and release hospital for sea turtles and seals, the National Marine Life Center uses all proceeds from the gift shop, which total approximately $15,000 per year, to support the facility's present and future programs, which include plans to treat dolphins, porpoises and small whales.

"Our shop is only 20-by-30 feet, so we are tight on space. When I go to buy merchandise, I look first for local vendors and artists who understand our environmental cause, and I look for merchandise that provides our customers with good value."

Shoppers can pick up everything from apparel and jewelry to toys and shot glasses in the custom souvenirs category at the Flint RiverQuarium in Albany, Ga.

Last summer, Zagzebski brought in a variety of new custom merchandise displaying the name and logo of the marine center. One of the most promising product lines were reusable grocery bags. Anyone who purchased a bag received a discount on future gift shop purchases if they brought back the bag to hold the new purchases.

Zagzebski also introduced to her customers late this season a customized biodegradable water bottle and Bisphenol-A (BPA)-free mugs. BPA is a hormone-disrupting chemical that many scientists believe to be harmful to humans and the environment.

"It is too early to judge how this merchandise will do as we got them in late in the season, but next year will be a great test," she noted.

Custom merchandise that has already proved successful include organic T-shirts and custom T-shirts from the Earth, Sun, Moon Trading Company that display words of advice from sea turtles and other aquatic animals on how to enjoy life.

Zagzebski tries to change her merchandise each year as the National Marine Life Center does get a great deal of repeat visits from tourists who make an annual trip to Cape Cod. While most of her custom merchandise has proven successful, Zagzebski admits that some custom products have not performed as expected.

Gifts in complementary colors at the Flint RiverQuarium. The attraction uses about three vendors for its custom souvenirs.

"I think the items that didn't make it that surprised me most were our custom beach towels. They were a good price point and our name looked great on them, but they just did not move. Every once in a while, you get surprised that way."

The Flint RiverQuarium in Albany, Ga., is home to more than 120 creatures that tell the story of the Flint River. Gift Shop Manager Claudia Durham, brings in new custom merchandise each year that will draw attention to the RiverQuarium and its work. All proceeds from the gift shop, which earns between $75,000 and $85,000 each year, go back to the RiverQuarium to support its programs.

"I use about three vendors for my custom merchandise," Durham explained. "My store is only about 500 square feet, so I work with vendors who will let me purchase smaller quantities at more frequent intervals. I just do not have the space for a thousand pieces at a time. I also rely on vendors who can give me quality merchandise at affordable price points."

The most popular custom items for Durham's shop are the custom T-shirts that sell for $14.99 as well as mugs, magnets and shot glasses. While mostly adults purchase apparel, the smaller custom merchandise such as toys are purchased more by children.

Claudia Durham, gift shop manager, Flint RiverQuarium. Durham buys smaller quantities frequently to keep her compact store stocked with custom souvenirs.

"We are very conscious of our customer base and what they can and cannot afford, so we always try to have merchandise that fits into a price point that is acceptable for everyone," she noted.

As aquarium director for the Maine State Aquarium in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, Aimee Hayden-Roderiques is responsible for all inventory and purchasing for the gift shop as well.

"As far as our custom merchandise goes, I look for interesting items that are traditionally popular and that have a lower price point," Hayden-Roderiques explained. "We get about 35,000 guests during our four-month season from May through September and many are schoolchildren, so I have to have merchandise that fits into their small budgets."

Operated by Maine's Department of Marine Resources, the aquarium has to abide by the bidding process for all vendors. For Hayden-Roderiques that means accepting bids from vendors for clothing, small toys, magnets, stickers, etc.

"I cannot just go to one vendor. Almost every item is a separate bid. I make sure that I stress the price points I look for and the quality I want for the shop, and then vendors bid on what they can supply."

Jean Steinmetz, retail manager of the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium in California, photographed with good-selling plush. Making merchandise affordable for children is important for the shop. Photo by Gary Florin.

Children buy the most popular custom items at the Maine State Aquarium, and they are the smaller items such as magnets and stickers. Adults tend to buy the more expensive items that sell for above $10 such as T-shirts.

While custom and name-dropped items usually always do well, a few items that were not successes such as sweatshirts and hats have surprised Hayden-Roderiques.

"I was really shocked by how the sweatshirts didn't move, but I guess when people come here it is the summer, and they are not looking for warmth."

At Marineland of Florida in St. Augustine, visitors can choose from a variety of programs that allow them close encounters with dolphins. As retail manager for Marineland's gift shop, Beth Stacy tries to bring the magic of the dolphin encounters into the store.

A location thermometer for sale at the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium. Finding vendors for the store’s small quantity custom order needs is challenging for the retail manager.

"I have about 1,700 square feet of retail space, so I try and find merchandise that fits all price points and all age groups," Stacy said. "When I look to purchase custom merchandise, I always look to local vendors and artists first. I think it's extremely important to support the community that supports us."

Stacy brings in different merchandise each year, but recognizes that the most popular custom items contain Marineland's logo with a picture of a dolphin.

"When people come here, they get an experience of a lifetime. They want the custom merchandise to show that they had an up-close encounter with dolphins. They want everyone to know."

While apparel and artwork may be on the higher end of the price range of merchandise, Stacy noted that some of the most popular custom items are the lower price point items such as key chains, magnets and the most in-demand custom item, a dolphin-click pen.

"It is such a simple piece of merchandise, but I cannot keep them in the store. I put them out, they are sold in hours. They are amazing for us."

Sea-themed, name-dropped merchandise for sale at the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium. Smaller items are placed by the register for maximum impact.

Located adjacent to the Cabrillo Beach Coastal Park and the Port of Los Angeles, the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium is home to the world's largest collection of southern California marine life. In the aquarium gift shop, new Retail Manager Jean Steinmetz is finding ways to bring custom and non-custom merchandise into peaceful co-existence in the 1,000-square-foot store.

"Since I have only been here two months, I am still learning what we have and what I want to bring in," said Steinmetz. "But this is a great aquarium that does such good work, and we want the gift shop to reflect this great work."

The Cabrillo Marine Aquarium welcomes more than 250,000 visitors per year, many of whom are schoolchildren. With such a large concentration of children coming to the free-admission aquarium, the gift shop has on hand merchandise that is both inviting and affordable to children. Operated by the Friends of the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium, the gift shop grosses about $200,000 per year, all of which goes back to the aquarium programs.

"The smaller custom items such as key chains, small backpacks, magnets, pencils, pens, stickers, mugs, and fish shortbread cookies with our initials on them are very popular with all the kids. We place a lot of this merchandise by the registers so that the kids can find them easily."

Steinmetz carries higher price-tag items as well that attract adult visitors such as stainless commuter mugs, tote bags, T-shirts, sweatshirts and other apparel.

One challenge that Steinmetz has already faced is finding vendors that will work with her on smaller custom orders. With a small gift shop and a desire to bring in more non-custom merchandise such as artwork and home décor items, Steinmetz does not have the room or budget for large quantity orders.

"So far, vendors have been great to work with, so I am looking forward to building relationships with them. I want this shop to be inviting for every visitor that comes through the gates."

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