Manager’s Corner: Chris Gustafson, National Railroad Museum
It’s been two years since Chris Gustafson went all aboard the National Railroad Museum as its Museum Store Manager.
With more than 30 years of experience as a department store buyer and manager, Gustafson was used to dealing with a broad range of products. Now, however, most of the products he deals with have a similar focus: trains.
In addition to its exhibits and thousands of artifacts, the National Railroad Museum offers train rides, has a theater for films and presentations and hosts special events, including weddings. The museum draws roughly 100,000 visitors a year. It opened in 1956.
MM: Could you share a little about your retail background?
CG: I have been involved in the retail industry for the past 32 years. About half of the time I was involved at the corporate level with the forecasting, brand development and buying of merchandise for a major national department store chain. The other half was in multiple management positions in the field including managing a big-box retail store.
MM: How large is the store in terms of square footage? About how many products do you offer?
CG: The store is approximately 1,300 square feet and we take advantage of all the space that we can. We offer a large range of products and have approximately 2,500 SKUs.
MM: What percentage of gift shop revenue comes from the websites sales?
CG: We offer approximately 25 percent of our SKUs online and they represent about 8 percent of our revenue. As a percentage of sales, our online business has virtually doubled each of the last two years and we see that trend continuing.
MM: What are your top-selling products?
CG: In terms of dollar volume, we probably sell more books than anything else. We also do very well with toys for kids. We sell everything from Ty beanie babies to Melissa and Doug educational toys, but try to stay with the train theme as much as possible. Our mix is approximately 95 percent train-related and five-percent other. The only purely non-train merchandise we have comes from Ty.
MM: Where do you typically search for new items?
CG: I use the training I received as a retail buyer to find new products for the Museum Store. I like to shop the competition, both brick-and-mortar and online. I also enjoy talking to my vendor reps and getting them to focus on what it will take to grow my business with them. I like to make them partners in my business and have always had great success creating long-lasting relationships that translate to growth for both parties. I do try to attend a couple of train shows each year, but I do not attend any traditional gift or market shows. I have some vendor reps that attend the market shows and they give me advice each time they visit.
MM: What percentage of sales comes from name-dropped or customized merchandise specific to the museum?
CG: I am constantly looking for opportunities to create new merchandise that sells our brand. My experience with brand development has been very useful, but, as a smaller operation, it is difficult with economies of scale to get higher-quality merchandise at affordable costs that name-drops the museum. Overall, I believe our name-drop merchandise represents about 5 percent of our total sales.
MM: How large is the staff that works in the gift shop? Do you rely on volunteers at all?
CG: Our staff includes, apart from me, one full-time associate and three part-time associates. During special events we will hire a couple additional associates. We do not rely on volunteers in the Museum Store accept during special events and then we use them primarily for set up and take down of our satellite gift shops.
MM: How do you go about training the staff, any training programs in place?
CG: Interestingly enough, developing a training program is one of my goals for this year. Currently, we do not have a formal training program. Most of the training is hands-on. I will have a new associate shadow a more seasoned one. I also work with them one-on-one. We are a very small operation and the museum staff is like a large family that supports and helps each other.
MM: Do you carry any products that always seem to draw a reaction from visitors?
CG: We do have a five-tone whistle that sounds just like a steam engine when you blow it. One of my associates loves to demonstrate it. She usually blows it when the children are not looking and it attracts a lot of attention. She has days when she sells four or five of them just because of her demonstrations.