Director of Retail Operations, North Carolina Aquariums
How long have you been in this role and a part of NC Aquarium?
I have been in this role for four years, after being promoted from the buyer position. My career with the North Carolina Aquarium Society began nine years ago where I worked as a sales associate at the NC Aquarium Gift Shop at Fort Fisher.
I remember tossing a coin into the Spadefish fountain in hopes of working in the aquarium gift shop after interviewing for a part-time sales associate position in 2009. Wishes do come true — to be a part of this amazing team of people!
Does the product selection vary much between the four aquarium-run stores?
The product selection is predominately the same for all the aquarium gift shops. It may vary to accommodate an event or exhibit specific for any of the locations. We have one full-time buyer with a part-time assistant. Our gift shop at Jennette’s Pier, in addition to gift items, carries food, beverage and fishing supplies, which is purchased by that store manager.
What are the most important factors in deciding if a line of products is right for the stores?
Does it reflect the aquarium experience and our mission to inspire, appreciation and conservation of our aquatic environments? Our partnership is to provide support for the aquariums. We take into consideration costs, profit margins, is it educational, conservation, the success of similar items, and if we are able to name-drop.
Do you have any customer service philosophies or thoughts to share?
Our goal is to support the aquariums and ensure that all of our visitors have an enjoyable and positive experience while learning about our aquatic environments. Our visitors are creating memories and hopefully sharing that with others. We want our gift shops to feel inviting, engaging and show that we care about what we are doing. If we are successful in doing this our visitors will support our aquariums and want to take something home with them that connects them to their experience.
The gift shops recently underwent renovations. Can you share a little about them and why they were beneficial?
The NC Aquarium on Roanoke Island underwent a major renovation, which presented the perfect opportunity to also renovate the gift shop. The aquarium design was spectacular, creating environments that told the story and character of the area. What we had in the gift shop and that needed to be a changed were neutral, bland colors with little theme or character of interest. We also knew this was a great time to have an entrance and exit going through the gift shop; therefore, increasing our capture rate. Enlisting the help of Peter Sollogub, architect/designer with CambridgeSeven Associates, put into motion the concept of our gift shop. Collaborating with Shelly Nunnally, gift shop manager, and her assistant managers, we worked as a team to discuss how we wanted our gift shop to be a reflection of the aquarium. We wanted to grab the attention of our visitors and extend their experience. Working together, the themes, shapes, animals that told our story began to evolve. Out of these discussions, the displays of a ship, shark, turtle and otter developed and with this our shop began taking on a personality and playfulness that would draw in our visitors. Color, inspired by sea glass, and defining the departments would direct the layout and traffic flow through the store. It is the planning and details from floor to ceiling, expressing the theme of the aquarium that has made this a unique gift shop showstopper. We know we did something right by the excited looks and big smiles on our visitor’s faces! With the success from this renovation, we took what we learned and applied that to our gift shops at Fort Fisher and Pine Knoll Shores.
With the gift shop at Fort Fisher, we were missing out on capturing our visitor’s eye. The entrance was dimly lit with two sets of double doors painted black and a neutral interior with black ceilings. The signage was equally generic. We needed to open up the entry and create a sense of excitement and allure to draw our visitors in. Consulting with our same designer along with gift shop manager, Jill Kennen and her assistant managers, we collaborated on a plan to open up and brighten the entrance. The signage became a colorful beacon seen from the length of the aquarium with sea life banners leading our guests in where they could find that unique treasure to take home. By refreshing the gift shop with bright colors, opening up the entrance and updating the fixtures a new energy connected with our visitors as well as our staff.
Following the successful gift shop renovations at two of our locations, we decided to keep the momentum going and proceeded with Pine Knoll Shores. Conducting a workshop with designer, Peter Sollogub, gift shop manager, Linda Morelli and her assistant managers, we identified what was working and what we could improve upon. The existing cash wrap did not function well with our traffic flow and high volume of transactions. We redesigned the cash wrap so that the position of the registers became more functional. Also, important was to have it double as a displayer for merchandise and showcase our jewelry selections. From floor to ceiling, the details using color and sea life shapes mirror the theme of the aquarium “Journey from the Mountains to the Sea” reflecting the state of North Carolina. Designing an environment in the gift shops to captivate and extend the visitor’s experience with the aquarium has been a success story for us.
With more than 1.3 million annual visitors, the gift shops had a record-breaking year in 2017. Not only did the renovations give a lift to the appearance of the shops and our staff. Showing we care resonates with our visitors and lifts them up as well.