How Woodland Park Zoo balances conservation and profits
Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo got in on the ground floor when that whole internet thing started back in the day. Its official website address is simply zoo.org.
The 92-acre Woodland Park Zoo, founded in 1898, greets 1.3 to 1.5 million visitors each year. The summer months, when school is out and Seattle’s notoriously rainy climate is typically at its driest, are busiest times of the year.
Woodland Park’s gift shop, the ZooStore, has two locations, one at each entrance to the zoo, as well as a sub store by the penguin habitat. There is roughly 6,000 feet of retail space in all and offer approximately 8,000 SKUs. Plush is the biggest seller, followed by apparel.
The retail staff runs with about 15 employees during the slower months and grows to up to 30 during peak summer months, including ZooStore manager Michelle Dulaney.
How long have you been in current position and what are your responsibilities?
MD: Going on about three years at Woodland Park Zoo, but I’ve been a store director for about seven years now. As a director, I oversee operations, inventory, product merchandising, coordinate with buyers, events and various teams within the zoo to maximize opportunities that speak to guest demographics, as well as, primary initiatives and conservation for the zoo. I hire the staff, monitor our budget goals and spending, write the schedules, while always looking for ways to improve and enhance the shopping experience for our guests.
What kind of employee training program do you have?
We have a training schedule that focuses on guest engagement, organization, product knowledge, culture and a tour of the zoo and facilities. When we really focus on the “whys” of everything we do, we get the best results from the team. We don’t just sell a product, we sell a connection to a tiger sunbathing just like your housecat, your child’s first time feeding a giraffe, the commitment to saving our planet and that feeling of giving back, knowing your purchase helps to support us.
Do proceeds go to the general operating fund or do they fund any specific programs?
Many items support specific initiatives, from ZooDoo to education without borders. On others, proceeds are collected and allocated to different conservation initiatives. Every purchase gives back.
How does name-dropped merchandise figure into total sales?
MD: Apparel and souvenirs are the most heavily name-dropped and they are roughly 35 percent of sales.
When looking for new products to sell, what kind of things do you look at to decide if they’re right for your store?
MD: Eco-friendly, made in America, artisan, conservation — all of the above! We also make sure to look at trends in the market, seasonality, guest demographics, messaging, additional operations that it may support, fair trade practices and sustainability. Items must fit the venue in some way for us to carry it.
Do you carry unusual items or stuff that always seems to get a reaction from visitors?
The best reaction we get is for ZooDoo and Worm Doo. It’s basically exotic animal feces from herbivores on site that is turned into compost for plants. The worm doo goes an extra step, having the compost being eaten by worms and then excremented again for an extra soil boost. It’s fun to tell kids they are holding Lulu poo (our baby giraffe). The zoo also holds a lottery in the spring and summer to get large quantities of compost called fecal fest. We had a promotion last December for HoliDoo that was a great success.
Is there anything else you’d like to share about the zoo?
MD: (Last year) was a record sales year for us and also one of personal growth. We experimented with a lot of different things and learned a lot of best practices and not-so-great practices. Our goal is always to continue to evolve, learn more, then use what we learn to continue to grow, and to continue to find better, more eco-friendly ways of doing things. Through education, messaging and passion we can keep spreading the zoo’s mission and grow not only our business, but our minds in helping inspire people to learn, care and act to help save animals and their habitats.
Anything exciting on the horizon?
MD: Late spring, we will be opening another location for the unveiling of the newest exhibit, the rhino reserve. Woodland Park Zoo will even be offering encounters with the rhinos. I’m so excited!