Now 16 years into the business, Bill Lucey is now among the seasoned veterans of zoo retailers. He is also a well-known and active member of the Zoo & Aquarium Buyer’s Group, as Lucey’s facility — RainForest Adventures Discovery Zoo in Sevierville, Tennessee — hosts an annual ZAG mixer during the Smoky Mountain Gift Show and International Gift Exposition in the Smokies.
Eight years ago, Museums & More featured RainForest Adventures in an article in which Lucey spoke about retail practices, merchandising and networking. We thought now would be a good time to check in with Lucey to find out what’s new.
(RainForest Adventures is an indoor zoo that features approximately 125 species and houses a 2,800-square-foot gift shop.)
MM: What changes has RainForest Adventures undergone?
BL: There’s been an evolution here species- and animal-wise going from focusing largely on reptiles to more small mammals. They have a greater appeal in respect to merchandising products to the general public than do snakes and reptiles. It extends well beyond just the growing and changing, and all that stuff is natural in any business, but here the progression has been toward species that actually help move products. … Not to knock snakes or anything, but by the time you get to your third or fourth snake, you’re thinking, “that’s just another snake.” This stuff is so fundamentally different that most things you’ve seen.
MM: Any unusual species?
BL: An African hyrax came in this year, which is closest living relative to the elephant, a really unusual creature. We put in an over-the-top-quality exhibit for that animal. Ironically, there are vendors ahead of us on that curve, as there are hyrax plush available. … Having a greater a quantity of lemurs, monkeys and other (cute animals), you’re much more likely, at a given time, to have particularly cute (merchandise), which not only help the draw but keep it fresh for your annual visitors, season pass holders and public school teachers. The vendors — Fiesta, Aurora, Wishpets or whoever — are really staying ahead of the curve.
MM: How do you stay up on trends?
BL: The trade shows and ZAG are pivotal in keeping up on trends. It’s one thing to have one or two acquaintances in the industry that you can speak to or another zoo or two on what did well for them, but when you can attend a ZAG meeting when there are 80 or 90 facilities represented, the mixing is just fantastic. You’re likely to hear things you didn’t know, and you can go pursue that vendor. Maybe you find one that is a little more open-minded about trying to produce something new. The communication helps push you to one of those vendors that you might not have found otherwise.
MM: What changes have you seen what sells?
BL: I think there are naturally cynical things, and the media drives some of that stuff. If you think of it, 15 or 20 years ago, ring-tailed lemurs, although they were cute and in some zoos, their popularity took off with the general public when along came movies like “Madagascar,” where they animated that. That brings an awareness of the general public of species they’d never heard of before. … I don’t know that they expect to see it at a zoo, but when they do and they can make a cultural tie-in with a movie they’ve seen or a book they’ve read their children. Then they follow it up with a purchase in the gift shop that kind of closes the whole deal. It lets the child go home with King Louie from “Madagascar.” Everybody wins.
MM: Is anything that you do now that you can’t believe you ever did it differently?
BL: There haven’t been fundamental shifts what we’ve purchased in the last eight years, but we have certainly streamlined certain categories. For example, we reluctantly passed on Pucker Powder for a number of years because we were worried we would be dealing with a sugary mess on the floor, mice and all that good stuff. We resisted even knowing it had a higher profit margin that some of the prepackaged candy. … We’ve tried things that we would have been much smarter to have done several years earlier, but our own prejudices held us back from making that leap into a product like Pucker Powder, which still has great legs and has our No. 1 gross margin of any in the candy category.
MM: What’s the most exciting part of the job?
BL: Again, it’s the shows and the networking of ZAG. (The Smoky shows) are an annual event that I think people in our industry look to almost akin to a kid looking forward to Christmas. You simply don’t know what’s going to be there.