How a Museum Gift Shop Is Handling Change

by Mary Wojciechowski
photos courtesy The Strong

Managing a toy shop is anything but child’s play. This is what the SSA Group found out when they took over the management of the museum shop at The Strong National Museum of Play in early 2020.

The Strong is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the “history and exploration of play.” Located in Rochester, New York, it draws global attendance with its numerous interactive and innovative exhibits.

The SSA Group is a national company that provides retail, ticketing and food services to museums, cultural attractions and zoos. This allows museums like The Strong to focus on their mission without the added difficulties of managing their food and retail shops. The SSA Group’s contract with The Strong involves the management of the museum’s retail, catering and food and beverage operations. A percentage of every sale goes to The Strong, and retail customers are offered the opportunity to round up as an additional donation.


Big changes underway

In 2020, a 90,000-square-foot addition to the museum was underway. The addition is one phase of a massive renovation project to the museum and its surrounding neighborhood, which began in 2018. The renovation is set to be completed in summer 2023 and will house a new atrium, admissions area, museum store – called the Everything for Play! Shop – World Video Game Hall of Fame and an exhibit dedicated to how technology has changed the way people play.

Due to the renovations, the Everything for Play! shop had been relocated to a temporary and much smaller space. Then, three short weeks after the SSA Group took over retail operations, the COVID lockdowns began, which ignited months of low attendance and supply chain issues.

Regardless of the challenges, the SSA Group continues to successfully sell the idea of play. “The Strong is a big cultural attraction,” said General Manager Nick Grocock. “People come from all over the world to see us. We like to have fun in the store and keep that imagination going as the guests are leaving.”


Developing the mix

Despite its importance as an integral part of the museum experience, the Everything for Play! shop has operated out of a space the size of small boardroom since late 2019. Unable to make permanent changes to that room, SSA staff had to think creatively to make the temporary space work from a merchandising perspective. They purchased new fixtures and arranged the space artistically by lining the walls with toys of all kinds and setting up several free-standing displays.

The store’s mission is to inspire play, but it must also inspire sales. Purchasing decisions are made by SSA Group Retail Buyer Laurel Wright in conjunction with the general manager and the store’s retail supervisor.

Wright has years of buying experience under her belt and a flexible “Gumby” attitude towards tackling challenges. Although she works out of another state, she is well aware of the store’s layout and fixtures, and her decision-making takes into account shelf size and available space.

Many of the store’s toys tie in with exhibits while others represent nostalgic items or impulse buys. The shop has something for everyone, from returning members to international tourists. Some of the shop’s hottest sellers are brands including Barbie, Hot Wheels, Little People, Etch A Sketch and Sesame Street. Butterfly jewelry also does very well, in keeping with the museum’s butterfly garden.


Overcoming obstacles

The Toy Hall of Fame is one of the primary exhibits the store endeavors to represent. Every time a toy is added to the National Toy Hall of Fame, a version of the toy is sold in the store. While many of these decisions can be fairly straightforward, some can be a bit tricky. For example, when sand was added to the Toy Hall of Fame in 2021, the store chose to sell kinetic sand.

Licensed toys can be another buying obstacle. Finding vendors who carry the licensed products the store needs can be an exhaustive search, especially since vendors change quite often. It becomes even harder when a licensed toy is unavailable to outside retailers. For example, when the American Girl doll was added to the Toy Hall of Fame, Wright obtained special permission to sell it, making The Strong the only outside retailer to carry American Girl.

Licensed apparel is yet another challenge. When licensed apparel is not available, Wright works with a vendor who creates apparel with artwork that complements the licensed product in the store.

Price is also a factor, and Wright finds it necessary to say “no” to some of the more expensive products.

The pandemic caused challenges of its own, shutting down the all-important trade shows and causing supply chain backups. Wright’s solution was to dig into her resources, always research new vendors, and jump on buying opportunities when they arose.

The Everything for Play! shop staff has learned what sells and how best to inspire play. Toys that fit with the mission, appeal to both kids and adults and create memories of the museum visit are keys to their success. “If it’s right, it will sell,” said Wright.

The staff has also learned what kind of atmosphere is best to inspire sales. Replenishing low stock and friendly customer service are crucial, especially in a store that caters to families.

The staff are ready, eager and excited for the museum’s renovation to be complete. The new space will be bright, colorful and fun – a place to inspire imagination – and will be renamed the Playhouse. The store will be moving to its permanent home in June 2023. With 2,200 square feet to work with, there will be areas for children and adults to play with toys, a fun selfie wall, giant decorative Jenga towers, colorful displays and room for twice the SKUs they currently carry. While the temporary space only has room for 365 SKUs, the new one will be able to house a whopping 700-plus SKUs.

               The Strong National Museum of Play is hoping to see over a million visitors this year, with each of them finding their way to the museum store. Over the past three years the store staff has proven they have what it takes to inspire sales and inspire play, no matter what the challenge. This year, they’re hoping their store will give a million people a million reasons to play.



The Secret Power of the Small Toy Store

The Everything for Play! shop has a similar challenge to many small toy stores: the low-priced, well-stocked competition of Walmart, Target and Amazon. According to General Manager Nick Grocock and Retail Buyer Laurel Wright, the advantage of Everything for Play! and small toy stores like it lies in their ability to stay nimble and be flexible. Fresh stock, new displays and creative merchandising are crucial to keeping the sales rolling.

Other pieces of the puzzle are the importance of doing research on vendors, being flexible to change and finding new ways to get the right products. Independent toy stores that get stuck in their ways won’t easily succeed. Retail is always changing, and the small toy store must be able to adapt itself. In order to compete, they need to be flexible to change, stay connected to vendors, be innovative with product and keep the store looking fresh.

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