Changing their spots
Jared Bednar had a colorful way to describe the Topeka Zoo’s Leopard Spot gift shop prior to a recent renovation.
“One might say plush had vomited all over the gift shop,” said Bednar, the guest services manager for Friends of the Topeka Zoo and buyer for the gift store.
It’s not that Bednar doesn’t like plush — it’s the store’s biggest seller. It’s just that Bednar felt the Leopard Spot’s product selection was something of a one-trick pony. “Prior to the remodel and new buying plan, we primarily focused on providing product for kids, ages five to 10,” he said. “We did little for guests that were not young children.”
Inventory wasn’t the only problem. The 930-square-foot store lacked “functionality,” organization and workers weren’t even able to see visitors coming because the cash-wrap station was so poorly placed. Bednar reached out to his Zoo & Aquarium Buyers Group (ZAG) contacts, who assisted in designing the new store layout and creating a more complete product selection. Bednar specifically noted the help of Tommy Brown of the Saint Louis Zoo and Theresa Danneffel of John Ball Zoo in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Leopard Spot now offers 675 SKUs for guests of the Topeka Zoo, which draws approximately 200,000 visitors each year. Both zoo attendees and employees alike are thrilled with the new operation. Bednar told us all about it.
Why did you feel a renovation was in order?
JB: Truly the biggest impetus of change was the functionality of the space. We had a huge desk inside the gift shop that was both point-of-sale, as well as workspace. Four months out of the year, during the slower months, Leopard Spot doubles as our primary entrance for guests. The desk was in a location where staff couldn’t see the entrance to the zoo and the entrance to the parking lot at the same time. Staff would be unaware that a busload of kids would be entering the zoo until the shop was full of children. We also had these horrible built-in counters that surrounded the store, which was extremely inflexible when it came to displaying product. The least important reason for change was the outdated look of the gift shop. Leopard Spot was just visually drab.
How do you feel about the changes now?
JB: We thought it was important to stick to our zoo’s mission, which is to promote wildlife conservation and education. We also had a limited budget, and knew that we would have to do the labor ourselves. This led to choosing a somewhat rustic theme, so we could use recycled materials as much as possible — it also hides some of our imperfect work. The ceiling, trim work, desk, and many of the displays are made from reclaimed wood, tin and spools. Other displays were purchased from stores going out of business, giving them a new life. We partnered with two of our zoo’s supporters, Ashley Bahm and her father David Bahm. Their companies, Bahm Construction and Demolition and Project Greenpoint donated the materials.
During the remodel we also brought in new software for all our areas: ticketing, food service and retail. While not a part of the renovation project, this has allowed us to do things within Leopard Spot that we were previously unable to, such as categorize our items and offer gift cards for guests.
Have you gotten much feedback?
JB: Staff are proud of the work they did, and enjoy being able to support our mission of conservation in a different way. They also appreciate the new layout, as the location of the current desk provides more visibility and is directly in front of the stock room. Staff can now see who is entering either external door without having to turn around.
Many guests have told us how much better Leopard Spot looks. They absolutely love the ceiling and think our use of repurposed materials is a great idea. A few guests even mentioned that the shop is easier to move through. While we now have more displays than we had in the past, the removal of the old huge desk provided additional floor space. This allows us enough room for those double-wide strollers and ADA accessibility.
What have traditionally been your bestselling products?
JB: As with many locations, plush is our bestseller, as it accounts for around 30 percent of our sales. Followed by that is toys, which is about 15 percent of our sales. Prior to the remodel and new buying plan, we primarily focused on providing product for kids, ages five to 10. We did little for guests that were not young children. One might say plush had vomited all over the gift shop. Now with the remodel we have departmentalized our store. There is a concerted effort to have different areas for different types of product. Though the plush and toys now take up less floor space, the sales have not suffered. This allows us to bring in different types of product.
Do retail proceeds fund anything specific?
JB: Retail proceeds support the general operating fund. Occasionally, we do carry special promotional product that will support our conservation fund. This past year we started a honeybee hive on zoo grounds. The harvested honey was sold in our gift shop, with all of the proceeds going directly to conservation initiatives.
Where do you typically look for new products?
JB: I visited my first trade show last fall in Tennessee, which was helpful in finding a few new companies. Members from ZAG have been helpful about making recommendations. Occasionally, I will hear about something from staff after they go to a zoo conference.