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ait in line long enough and that accessory or last-minute gift starts to look a lot more appealing. To assess what is involved in courting the impulse buyer, we talked to merchandising experts at zoos and animal sanctuaries around the country to find out how best to increase add-on sales. Some of their tips may be surprising.

Black Pine Animal Sanctuary in Albion, Ind., may not operate a traditional gift shop like a lot of other attractions, but here, every dollar counts. Black Pine has become a haven for wild animals, a kind of retirement community for lions, tigers, bears and other big and small species alike. Not only is the sanctuary charged with saving non-domestic animals who face a grim future, but they help educate communities about why it’s wrong to buy, sell, breed or trade animals.

That’s why $10,000 gross sales in souvenirs can make a difference. “We have a few items that we pack in and out of tubs daily in an outdoor kiosk of sorts,” explained Lori Gagen, Black Pine’s executive director. “Our selections are greatly limited due to weather concerns.” But of these items, she admitted plush and vinyl animal toys sell well, as do custom photo magnets and key rings, T-shirts and adoption kits. Her hope is that in addition to making a few extra dollars each year for the sanctuary, the items also help spread the word about animal welfare, starting with some of the site’s youngest visitors.

Small plush pieces can make the perfect affordable impulse buy. At the Cameron Park Zoo, the souvenir store's retail sales manager is always looking for fresh merchandise to keep frequent visitors interested and buying.

And at Brights Zoo, a private, family owned facility nestled in the hills of East Tennessee, gifts for all ages tend to appeal to the ultimate impulse buyer. “The best sellers are small stuffed plush that are under $5,” said Melinda Bright, one of the zoo’s owners in Limestone. Also popular are big and little animals with moving parts that she often displays at the cash register for guests that are getting ready to exit the zoo.

The 1,110-square-foot shop also sells books and T-shirts, some for just under $10. “Kids generally can talk their parents into something close by and that is cheap,” admitted Bright, so appealing to the small ones can go a long way. “I push for books because parents love the thought of [something being] fun and educational,” she said. “The same thing with puzzles that are between $3 and $5.”

She’s also introducing a few new items this year. “We have worked out a deal with Fiesta Company to sell some of their new stuffed plush toys,” said Bright, who is also hunting for new shirts and souvenirs with the zoo’s logo.

Good Things in Small Packages

At other attractions, impulse items sell best at point of purchase in more traditional shops. “They tend to be overlooked anywhere else,” says Cheryl Lopes, operations manager of the North Woods Gift Shop at the Buttonwood Park Zoological Society in New Bedford, Mass. The city-owned and operated zoo features 250 animals and 30 exhibits. Popular with both locals and visitors, the gift shop carries a variety of animal-themed products. “Our best impulse item, by far, are the Mini Animals by Safari,” said Lopes. “I have the 16-pocket display at the register at all times. Safari carries a great variety of Mini Animals and continues to come out with new styles.”

Lopes said she usually merchandises one or two items at the register (the shop is 1,200 square feet). “I try to vary it by season and what is happening at the zoo on any given day.” If a new exhibit opens about big cats, expect to see products associated with it at point of purchase. “I like to keep items I am able to mark up significantly to raise the overall profit margin in the store,” she explained. “I will also try placing a ’dud’ at the register as an impulse buy before marking it down for clearance.” She said it helps clear out unwanted inventory without having to put it on sale.

At the Cape May Zoo in New Jersey, small is also a big seller, especially Good Luck Minis from Safari. “They are each less than a square inch and very detailed,” explained Paula Kriebel, retail manager for Aramark Parks and Destinations, which manages the gift shop in Cape May. “We display them in plexiglass bins (they retail for $5 dollars each.)”

Plush in neat, organized displays make shopping easy at the Cameron Park Zoo in Waco, Texas. The store focuses on stocking items that enhance the zoo experience.

The zoo, which also focuses on conservation and animal education, has found a few new ways to encourage guests to take home gifts from the shop, thanks to friendly price points.

An assortment of postcards and candy greets customers at checkout in the 850-square-foot shop. “We also have signage promoting a $30 plush item for half off with purchases of $25 or more,” said Kriebel. “This year, we will be selling collectible metal tokens from Impact Photographics with our logo on one side and a snow leopard cub on the reverse. National Parks like Grand Canyon are carrying them.” She said she is also introducing collectible books.

Kriebel currently trains sales staff to inquire about add-ons with customers. “Having a cashier who knows to ask, ’Would you like a drink with those potato chips?’ is [a great way to add on sales].”

Eating Up Sales

Food can also be a successful focus for the impulse buyer, especially for a visitor who has been wandering around a destination for much of the day. “Our best selling impulse items are AmuseMints Collectible Tins,” said Michael Davis, retail sales manager at the Cameron Park Zoo in Waco, Texas. “They have our zoo logo on the tin.”

The gift shop focuses on items that enhance the zoo experience, one that uses natural habitats to simulate what it’s like to step into a rainforest or explore the river banks of an exotic land, or even travel to what seems far from Waco to understand African wildlife, nature and preservation.

To capture the attention of guests who are awed by the zoo’s sites, Davis has a few tricks up his sleeve at the 1,500-square-foot Zootique. “I’m lucky enough to have built-in shelving on the sides of my cash wrap,” he said. “I use that space for new name-dropped items.” Currently, he’s showcasing everything from binoculars to water bottle spray fans.

“We promote new items to keep our assortment fresh for our members who make frequent visits,” he said. “I also keep my Putamayo World Music CD listening station right by the cash register, so customers in line can put on the headphones and listen to the samples.” He admitted this has really driven impulse sales for music that retails for almost $15 each.

“I’m always looking for new impulse items to add to the assortment,” said Davis. “The add-on sales from these items are very significant.” Last year, his sales topped out at $407,000 in a venue where display space can be at a premium. “I can’t waste my available cash wrap,” he admitted. “And I have to be very selective when I decide to merchandise an item there.”

As a rule, he keeps all ages in mind. “Feature items that appeal to grownups and kids,” he said. “Oftentimes the grownups have decided by checkout what the children may purchase, and aren’t going to add on, but they will see something for themselves at a reasonable price and decide to pick the item up.”

Merchandising with a Message

Since Brookfield Zoo opened in 1934, conservation has been on its mind. As the zoo, based in Brookfield, Ill., evolves from one generation to the next, merchandising has become one way of driving home the message about animal welfare and healthcare.

For Susan Allen, merchandising manager for Brookfield, sales also mean profits, and profits are put back into the zoo for critical animal care. “We have six year-round locations that vary in size in various parts of the park,” she said. And at the gift shops, impulse buys are never underestimated.

“Our best-selling impulse items are unique to a zoo shop and not seen in other places,” explained Allen. Often the most popular goods also relate to the zoo or a special event and exhibit, with the exception of fads like last year’s stretch bracelets, which seem to have sold themselves.

She said convenience items are great impulse buys, like sunglasses, hats and sunscreen. The shops also sell candy (Monkey Mints, Endangered Species Chocolate and even something known as “poop” candy that’s shaped as you might imagine and is a big hit with the kids on school trips).

“We promote at check out different items in different shops related to the themes of the shop,” Allen explained. These items include anything from fair-trade bracelets and rings to jewelry, books about the zoo and small figurines.

Cheryl Lopes, operations manager, North Woods Gift Store, Buttonwood Park Zoological Society, New Bedford, Mass., photographed with Mark Lafreniere, gift store associate. “Our best impulse item, by far, are the Mini Animals by Safari,” Lopes said.

Allen is quick to jump on hot trends (like those stretch bracelets) and focuses on “items that people don’t see in other retail settings,” she said. And animal-themed impulse buys? Always a sure thing.

Flying Off the Shelves

If ideas for impulse buying had wings, Selena Charman, the gift store manager at Cambridge Butterfly in Cambridge, Ontario, would be soaring. She’s found a few unique ways of up selling items at the Canadian sanctuary where everything delicate always seems to be in fashion.

“I have two items that are my best impulse items and they are butterfly pins and bookmarks,” said Charman. “These two items sit right at the check out and do very well there.” They’re displayed in clear bins that sit on the counter and scarcely take up much room in the almost 1,000-square-foot shop.

Price plays a big role in items that customers may add-on to a sale. The pins are priced less than $2 and the bookmarks are less than $6. “I do sell other butterfly pins of higher dollar value,” she admitted, “but this is something of a great price grab for someone to take home.”

Locally made products also tend to convince customers to make a last-minute purchase, especially when it comes to gifts. “I am always looking for that new product,” said Charman. “I can normally find one cool product that will be the big seller every year.” She spends her time attending trade shows and reading the Zoo and Aquarium Buyers Group’s (ZAG) flyer for new gift ideas.

She also relies on staff to tell customers about items of interest. “I ask my staff to mention to customers, ’Are you interested in buying a souvenir pin or bookmark or guide?’ I find it works really well during the summer when we are most busy,” said Charman. “I make it a challenge for my staff to see who can up sell the most guides that we offer. They love it.”

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