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Books and plush at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium Jr. Zookeepers store are far more attractive in this wood display than they were in the metal pieces used previously.
By Linda M. Barba
n today’s economy, the old adage “make the most of what you’ve got” applies in all facets of the zoo and aquarium business – especially in our retail shops. When expansions or renovations are not financially feasible or even logistically possible, the strategic application of racks, displays, lighting and other accessories can go a long way towards delighting and enticing gift shop guests.

Solving the problem of inadequate space
For the 600-square-foot combination gift shop/reception area in the Louisburg, Kansas-based Cedar Cove Feline Sanctuary, space is at a premium. “We don't have a lot of room and expansion is not in the plans,” shared Linda Fries, the non-profit facility’s office manager. “So we put a lot of emphasis on the way we display merchandise to help make the sale,” she said.

For the Cedar Cove shop, which is open to the public two days per week, drawing $10,000 in annual revenue, stuffed animals are the best-selling items and are displayed in kid-height bins, by price range, with the more expensive items placed higher for an adult’s easy view. “We chose bins that are visible, functional and aesthetically pleasing,” Fries said.

Running out of retail space is a common challenge and the Cherry Brook Zoo in New Brunswick, Canada, understands the problem, too. Open all year, the zoo is located in a 35-acre woodland that is home to many exotic and endangered species, including the Siberian tiger, snow leopard, golden lion tamarin and Goeldi marmoset. The 900-square-foot-gift shop, with annual revenue of $45,000, has doors on either end, which makes merchandise accessible, but at the same time limits the amount of workable display area.

“While our retail area is limited, sales are increasing,” reported Lynda Collrin, director of zoo development at Cherry Brook. “Since our shop size is not adequate to sustain growing sales, we need displays that can be more easily used on the floor and on the walls,” she continued. To solve this problem, the zoo recently purchased and installed modular displays constructed of light-weight aluminum framing and a variety of cloth-covered sections in both rounded and flat shapes. Collrin described the modular, movable displays as “extremely versatile.” The proof that modular works? Using them, the small gift shop expanded its retail space by 30 percent without undergoing a major renovation or physical expansion.

All types of souvenirs at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium Zoo Marketplace store are attractive and easily accessible in new wood displays, which also free up much-needed floor space.
Delight and surprise gift shop guests
Home to America’s favorite zookeeper, Jack Hanna, the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Powell, Ohio, this spring gave extreme makeovers to two of its flagship stores, which together represent more than $2.5 million in annual revenue. Zoo Marketplace and Jr. Zookeepers shed their vendor-supplied fixtures and metal, four-way clothing racks, replacing them with custom-built wooden displays. According to Lisa Jones, assistant director of retail for the gift shops, the new displays hold more merchandise, freeing up much-needed floor space. “With the new arrangement, guests have more open space in which to move, and we find this creates a more inviting shopping experience,” Jones described.

Specifically, Zoo Marketplace received nine new pieces – four large gondola units, two smaller apparel units and three matching bookcases. Jr. Zookeepers now boasts two large freestanding units, three large matching bookcase units and several smaller stackable pieces.

The Columbus Zoo’s 400-square-foot Mermaid’s Purse at Manatee Coast was also completely renovated and expanded to 1,200 square feet this spring. The replacement of wood shelving with glass and the installation of slat walls covered to replicate an underwater scene transformed a once non-descript space into an engaging and colorful high-end specialty boutique. Painted and stamped wooden milk crates, complete with wood shelving, and real lobster crates hung on the walls not only enhance the theme, but create new surfaces for selling additional merchandise.

Lighting and other visual effects are important accessories, too. The Mermaid’s Purse shop installed a small projector, hidden behind the register area, to move light across the ceiling and upper walls, creating a calm, rippling underwater effect.

An overhead mermaid prop highlights the displays at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium Mermaid’s Purse store. Painted and stamped wooden milk crates, complete with wood shelving, and real lobster crates hung on the walls not only enhance the theme, but create new surfaces for selling additional merchandise.
Beware of special challenges
The effective display of jewelry presents a special challenge to gift shop retailers. Cherry Brook Zoo finds that glass-case displays can hurt sales. “People want to pick things up and look at them, try them on,” said Collrin. Locked-up items aren’t inviting, she explained. Jones agreed. “Locked jewelry cases don't work. You need a properly trained staff that are 100 percent accessible and that's not often feasible.”

Another key consideration: knowing when to replace a display or fixture is as important as knowing what to buy. Cardboard displays tend to cheapen the look of merchandise, as well as plexi displays that are cracked or scratched. “Plexi looks great when it’s new, but once it gets damaged, it’s time to replace it,” Jones said.

Whether you’re looking to spruce up an existing retail space or start over from scratch, consider your customer base, budget and what is working. The goal is simple: make the most of the space you have and enhance the guest experience. Do these things well and sales will surely follow.






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