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Ethan and Josh Ibgui photographed with merchandise at the Museum of Discovery and Science's store. Slime merchandise, and anything “gooey and gross” sells well at the shop, according to the buyer and manager.

oday’s children’s museums have gone beyond simple “play” and blend learning and fun in a unique and interactive way. As an extension of the museum, the gift stores aim for children to bring a piece of the museum experience home with them. As a result, children’s museums gift shops often have to find the balance between unusual items that will catch a child’s eye and an item that has an educational value. For store managers and buyers, this sends them on the hunt for items not found in traditional big box stores.

Meri Frauwirth, shop manager of the Santa Fe Children’s Museum, said she uses her own grandchildren as inspiration when stocking her store. “I buy things that I would buy for them.” Frauwirth said it’s important to be aware of what’s carried in big box stores so that there’s not an overlap in her store. “That’s what sets us apart,” she said.

A display of clay and tools at the Hands On Children’s Museum in Olympia, Wash. Local and regional items sell well in the store.

Since Frauwirth has to deal with a 500-square-foot store, she said she doesn’t stock her store with holiday-specific items nor does she buy in huge quantities because she doesn’t have the shelf space. “I try out a lot of new items and then reorder them if they’re popular,” she said. In terms of pricing, Frauwirth said she offers a wide selection of items under $30. For kids on field or school trips looking to buy something, “we have a nice range of items in the $1 to $10 price range.”

Frauwirth said one thing that parents are looking for are non-electronic toys, something they can work on with their children together. That means she sells a lot of science and art kits. In her store, dominoes and marbles are popular along with the more specialized building sets.

Toys photographed at the Thinkery store. “I always have my feelers out for educational, unique and cool merchandise,” the shop’s buyer said.

The idea of families working or playing together is something that resonates with other children’s museum gift shops. “Our parents are looking for toys that are educational, fun and promote group interaction. The comment I heard most this past holiday season was, ’This is something we can do as a family,’ ” said David Reed, event rental manager and store buyer for the Thinkery, in Austin, Texas. The most popular items in his store are edible chemistry sets and mobile and erector sets. “They’re fun, engaging, can be enjoyed as a family or individually and are smartly priced,” Reed said.

Colorful toy merchandise at the Hands On Children’s Museum. A large outdoor discovery area at the attraction encourages kids to get outside, and gardening merchandise is sold in the shop.

Reed’s store is roughly 300 square feet and he said that sales from the store brings in over 30 percent of the museum’s overall revenue. “I always have my feelers out for educational, unique and cool merchandise, always assessing whether or not it enhances or parallels what is happening in the museum,” Reed said.

Kevin Stradtner, buyer and manager, Explore Store and IMAX Concession, for the Museum of Discovery and Science in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said that he works to match store items to exhibits but there are also tried and true items that he has to have. “There’s some stuff you have to carry like space ice cream,” he said. Another big seller for Stradtner’s 1,100-square-foot store is the game Mancala. “It’s been around forever and I keep selling it.” Stradtner explained that the fold-up game can be played in the car, which might account for its popularity.

Slimy stuff is also popular in Stradtner’s store. “Anything gooey and gross. Kids love that,” he said. Throwback or vintage toys also sell well because parents remember those toys from their childhood and want their children to experience them too. “It makes the parent happy. They’ll say, ’Oh I remember this,’ and get excited,” Stradtner said.

Museum of Discovery and Science staff members John Heseltine, Cameron Moore and Susan Ercolino (left to right). Space ice cream and the game Mancala are popular sellers for the 1,100-square-foot gift store.

Stradtner attends gift conventions where he searches for unique items not found in regular toy stores. “You want that ’wow’ factor where they (the customer) say, ’Look at this. You can’t find this anywhere else,’ ” he said.

Local, regional items sell well at the Hands On Children’s Museum in Olympia, Wash. “We have local author who wrote a book about identifying local plants for kids that’s a great seller,” said Lesley Shahon, the museum store coordinator. Shahon’s store is roughly 600 square feet and sales from the store bring in 5 percent of the museum’s revenue. Since the museum has a large outdoor discovery area that encourages kids to get outside, age-appropriate gardening supplies are also sold in the store. Shahon said they are also open to suggestions from their customers. “We really listen and try to accommodate them,” she said.

Kevin Stradtner, buyer and manager, Explore Store and IMAX Concessions, Museum of Discovery and Science in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The operation offers tried and true merchandise and also items to match exhibits, he said.

Susan Kelley, executive director of the Children’s Museum at Holyoke in Holyoke, Mass., has to deal with tight spaces as her store consists mostly of shelving that’s part of the museum itself. “It’s a great store for stocking stuffers,” she said. Big sellers at her store are Beanie Babies and Beanie Boos and dinosaur-related items. Kelley also said she works to match the items in her store to the exhibits in the museum and to encourage creativity. “You want to tie in learning and fun at the same time,” she said.

At the Gertrude Salzer Gordon Children’s Museum of La Crosse in La Crosse, Wis., Meg Steuer, store manager, said one of her top-selling items were bags of polished rocks. “We’ve had them for 15 years and they sell consistently.” An animal land machine that is similar to Build-a-Bear and Magna Tiles are also very popular, she said.

Mason Sady photographed in the Children’s Museum at Holyoke’s store in Holyoke, Mass. “You want to tie in learning and fun at the same time,” the museum’s executive director said of the shop.

Steuer said her 500-square-foot store is also big on pretend play. For example, if they have firefighters in an exhibit they’ll have fire fighter outfits in the gift store. They are also trying to be more intentional about marketing their gift shop as a toy shop and letting the wider community know about them. On the museum’s Facebook page, Steuer said they have been highlighting a single gift shop item. “We want to have our name out there as a toy store,” she said.
JJ Kicza tries on a fireman’s costume for size at the Children’s Museum at Holyoke’s shop. While encouraging creativity, the executive director works to match the items in the store to the museum’s exhibits.

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