If you prefer to download the PDF version, please click here.

Welcome New ZAG Members!

Please welcome the following new members:
  • Adventure Aquarium, Covington, KY
  • Adventure Aquarium, Camden, NJ
  • Edisto Island Serpentarium, Edisto Island, SC
  • Hatfield Marine Science Center, Newport, OR
  • Kalahari Resort, Sandusky, OH
  • Keystone Elk Country Alliance, Benezette, PA
  • Pacific Historic Parks, Aiea, HI
  • Tarpon Bay Explorers, Sanibel Island, FL
  • Wildlife Wonders: North Georgia Zoo & Paradise Valley Farm, Cleveland, GA

ZAG 2010 Annual Members’ Meeting and Dinner Roundtable Discussions

ZAG held its annual members’ meeting and dinner at the Sevierville convention center on Saturday November 6 during the International Gift Exposition in the Smokies and the Smoky Mountain Gift Show. Approximately 60 members enjoyed cocktails, dinner and great discussions with other buyers. After dinner and some official ZAG business, everyone broke into groups to share notes on what was hot and what was not in 2010, and merchandise that they are looking for. Below are the highlights:


  • Wishpets plush 8” retails $5.95-8.95, 12” floppy plush retails $12-14.00
  • Medallion coins
  • Lollipops with plush from Wishpets (mentioned many times)
  • Shark tooth accessories
  • Custom magnets from Impact Photographics
  • Laser Gift keychains and zipper pulls (mentioned several times)
  • Silly Bands (mentioned several times)
  • Little Critters figurines (mentioned several times)
  • Safari minis (mentioned several times), was #1 seller by volume for National Aquarium-Washington DC
  • Mood rings
  • Clay Critter magnets
  • 4Imprint water bottles (Washington Park Zoo allows refills for $.50)
  • Squire Boone sour test tubes
  • Squire Boone make your own necklace
  • Plush animals in general
  • Mint green tiger from K&M
  • Yoohoos from Aurora (mentioned many times)
  • Rhino hot sauce from Hot Shots/Kalahari Pepper Co (mentioned several times)
  • Twilight turtle from Cloud B
  • Face masks from K&M (mentioned many times)
  • Snakes from K&M
  • Zee Bee poppers from Zing Toys (John Ball Zoo)
  • Petting Zoo Bright Eyes plush (mentioned several times)
  • Rhode Island Novelty plush snakes (mentioned many times)
  • Half Pints from Rhode Island Novelty
  • Drawstring bags by Charles Products
  • Prairie Mountain glow sweatshirts in kids and adults
  • Polar Graphics hoodies
  • Warm Fuzzy 3-D’s (Sedgwick County Zoo)
  • Swirl plush from Fiesta (mentioned many times)
  • Plush slippers from Wishpets, especially in size medium and large (Henry Doorly Zoo)
  • Peek A Boo pillows from Fiesta
  • Baby emperor penguin chick from Aurora
  • Figurines from Stoneage Arts
  • Large safari trucks and truck w/helicopter from Rhode Island Novelty
  • Mr. Ellie Pooh, does well in all styles
  • Mini flopsies from Aurora (mentioned many times)
  • Water globes from Topline and Mistco
  • Plush penguins from Wishpets
  • Handmade baskets from Virunga Artisans (Henry Vilas Zoo)
  • Lollipops from Kraf & Associates (Kendon’s Candies) (mentioned several times)
  • Silver & black kids binoculars from Parris Mfg (Brookfield Zoo)
  • Bison jerky
  • Supersize plush, retails of $30 and up
  • Drip timer from Charles Products (mentioned several times)
  • I “Heart” Dolphins keychain from Nanco
  • Spinners from Warm Fuzzy
  • Jacobson Hats
  • EF Ivory
  • Women’s t-shirts and sweatshirts from Caviar Girl
  • Rubber animals with squeakers from Warm Fuzzy (Peoria Zoo)
  • Toddler tees from Dainty Miss
  • Pet carriers for plush animals (dogs, cats, hamsters) (Racine Zoo)
  • Rock candy (mentioned a couple of times)
  • Tie tyed sweatshirts
  • Small carved soapstone animals from Western Woods
  • Hoodie monkey plush from Petting Zoo (Milwaukee Zoo sold 1600 pieces at $13.99)
  • Foil prints from Dolan
  • Sunglasses with a $9.99 retail
  • Name hearts from Artistic Impressions
  • Street signs name program from Scandical (mentioned a couple of times)
  • Placemats name program from Swibco
  • Twisty straw cups from Charles Products and Porter World Trade
  • Artforms’ Peace Love Dolphins tie tyes in kids and adults (Texas State Aquarium)
  • Wildlife Artists logo plush stingrays, dolphins, sea turtles, otter
  • Magnet tiles name dropped from Jaco
  • Beanie Boos from TY
  • Friendship bracelets from Phillips Internationa/Cool Jewels
  • Rocks from Western Woods, retails for $2.99
  • Pajama sets from Lazy Ones (Lowry Park Zoo)
  • Humorous shirts from The Duck Company
  • Tees from Wild Cotton that related to the Virginia Living Museum’s dinosaur exhibit
  • Children’s jewelry in general from Phillips Intl/Cool Jewels (mentioned several times)
  • Frosted name dropped shotglasses from Universal Souvenirs
  • Boxed children’s necklaces from DM Merchandising (mentioned several times)
  • Small plush from Aurora and Wildlife Artists with a retail $8.00 and under
  • Fiesta plush in general
  • Squire Boone Zoo Babies display
  • Stoneage arts musical instruments
  • Hatch & Grow penguin from Warm Fuzzy
  • Rhode Island Novelty grow sealife
  • Necklaces and bracelets from Montana Artistic Impressions
  • Magnets from Terrell Creative (Tanganyika Wildlife Park)
  • Rhode Island Novelty items under $1.00
  • K&M snap bracelets
  • Planet Pals from Rhode Island Novelty
  • New shot glasses from Nanco
  • Kites from In the Breeze (Virginia Living Museum)
  • Adult mineral jewelry…turquoise and amber
  • Trisha Waldron jewelry
  • Colored diamond shaped paperweights from Barry Woen
  • Beaded name bracelets
  • Name program keychains from Wayne Carver
  • Apparel from EMI, Polar Graphics, Duck Co and Stephen Joseph
  • Small toys from Warm Fuzzy
  • Posh and Bright Eyes lines from Petting Zoo
  • Custom plush from Wildlife Artists
  • Shirts from Stephen Joseph
  • Adjustable hiking poles from Wilcor (Virginia State Parks)
  • Bearington Bears wildlife plush
  • Mashmallow sticks from Wilcor
  • Virgil O’Possum from Stuffed Animal House
  • Nancy’s rock candy
  • Bamboo critter nets from Wilcor
  • Audubon bird plush from K&M
  • Tribal bracelets from Hi Line
  • Loose rocks and gems from Squire Boone
  • Animal crossing signs from Atlas Screen Printing
  • Children’s books
  • Mountain tee shirts, all styles but especially white tiger (Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge)
  • Zoo Flipz, tiger, lion, bear, flip books
  • Tote bags w/stock photos and name drop from Polar Graphics
  • Pillows with big cats on them from Rhode Island Novelty
  • Pink and green plush from K&M
  • Playing cards from Terrell Creative
  • Custom carousel t-shirts and sweatshirts from Reflective Images (Buttonwood Park Zoo)
  • Schleich pvc animals
  • Aurora purses with animals (mentioned a couple of times)
  • Soda mugs with toppers from Whirley
  • K&M 70” plush snakes
  • Custom hanging monkeys
  • Kids’ tee-shirts from the Duck Co
  • Laughing rolling monkeys retail $24.99 (Zoo de Granby)
  • Custom beach towel
  • T-shirts from Earth Sun Moon and Sansegal
  • Ceramic mugs from Planet Cotton
  • Camp mugs from Liberty Hill Sales
  • Appalachian trail hats
  • Wind bells from North Country, retails $29.99-65.99
  • Drawstring backpack from Mountain Graphics
  • Peacock feathers from Zuckers Feathers (Binder Park Zoo)
  • Pinchers from K&M
  • Bag of rocks from GeoCentral
  • Fans from K&M
  • Pucker Powder (mentioned a couple of times)
  • Custom giraffe plush from Wildlife Artists
  • Gigi giraffe from Aurora
  • Face painting, sales have increased every year for 9 years (Binder Park Zoo)
  • Plush from Unipak
  • Minga kids knit hats
  • Glow products in general
  • Sun dresses (Brookfield Zoo)
  • Name program zipper pulls
  • Flip flops
  • Pillows
  • GoGo full zip fleece jackets, retails $19.95-29.95 (Santa Barbara Zoo)
  • EMI promo t-shirts, retails $14.95 or 2/$20
  • Wildlife Artists hand puppets
  • Warm Fuzzy fish bowls
  • Poo Poo Paper, entire line
  • Water bottles/name canteens from ID Gear (mentioned a couple of times)
  • Kids’ bucket hat from Stephen Joseph
  • Sunsout puzzles
  • Bird feeders, food and books
  • Anything polar bear (Como Park Zoo opened a new exhibit)
  • Custom polar bear t-shirts and sweats from TR McTaggert and Kid U Not
  • 29 Tonight water globes w/custom medallions


  • PVC animal tubes (Wildwood Wildlife Park)
  • Hanging monkeys, other hanging animals (mentioned many times)
  • Better, nicer giftware (mentioned several times)
  • Silly Bands (mentioned many times)
  • Jellyfish merchandise (Akron Zoo)
  • Art prints and posters (National Aquarium-Washington DC)
  • Foam visors (mentioned several times)
  • Infant t-shirts
  • “Green” products in various categories from various vendors and price points (mentioned many times)
  • Over the shoulder field bag
  • Jody Bergsma artwork (Virginia Safari Park)
  • Dvds and cds
  • Mugs (mentioned several times)
  • Farm toys and plush (Brookfield Zoo)
  • Dinner plate sets
  • Children’s plate sets
  • Pvc, individual pieces (mentioned a couple of times)
  • Chompers from K&M
  • Posters and postcards (Milwaukee Zoo)
  • Promo plush from Aurora
  • Puzzles from Serendipity
  • Cool Jewels (Texas State Aquarium)
  • T-shirt & mask combo from Stephen Joseph (Lowry Park Zoo)
  • Keychains of any kind (Virginia Living Museum)
  • Inspirational necklaces from Montana Artistic Impressions (Rainforest Adventures)
  • Tattoos and stickers from Warm Fuzzy
  • Zibbies from Play Visions
  • Higher end clothing, such as polos (Tanganyika Wildlife Park)
  • K&M Wild Clingers
  • Books (Aquarium of the Bay)
  • Name frames from Kalan Funworks
  • Custom dinosaur ornament from Chemart (Calgary Zoo)
  • Dirt shirts from Earth Creations (Virginia State Parks)
  • Wildflower jewelry
  • Custom brass park ornament from Jackson Pacific
  • 3D custom postcards (Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge)
  • Infant plush with a higher cost, like from Ganz
  • Plush backpacks from Rhode Island Novelty
  • Fleece vests with embroidered logos
  • Puzzles from Melissa & Doug
  • Custom socks from For Bare Feet (Buttonwood Park Zoo)
  • Plush animals on leash from Rhode Island Novelty, lots of breakage (Zoo de Granby)
  • Youth t-shirts (mentioned several times)
  • Ramatex recycled jackets (Binder Park Zoo)
  • Animaland stuffing from Nanco
  • Adult apparel (mention a couple of times)
  • Garden products (Lincoln Park Zoo)
  • Windchimes
  • Throws, not as many animals available (Brookfield Zoo)
  • Resin statues and figurines
  • Flags
  • Seasonal products (Como Park Zoo)


  • Parakeet items and plush, pot bellied pig plush (Wildwood Wildlife Park)
  • Cheaper batteries, free freight offers (Sedgwick County Zoo)
  • Good butterfly plush, gourmet food with an environmental connection, eco-friendly toys and plush that sell well (Brookfield Zoo)
  • Gifts for adults, statues, etc (Milwaukee Zoo)
  • Kids’ shorts sizes toddler to kids large, and water shoes (Texas State Aquarium)
  • Affordable, quality glassware (Rainforest Adventures)
  • Clouded leopard and other small cat plush (Tanganyika Wildlife Park)
  • Custom logo merchandise at reasonable quantities
  • More vendors for batteries and personal care items (aspirin, band aids, etc.) (Aquarium of the Bay)
  • Groundhog plush, box turtle plush, knife sets that can be customized (Virginia State Parks)
  • Coffee table books geared to adults (Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge)
  • Wine bottles that turn into cups, eco-friendly cups made in the USA, also items that can be sold at a pan for rocks operation (Binder Park Zoo)
  • Suncatcher company with reliable shipping (Brookfield Zoo)
  • Good quality, reasonably priced adult sunglasses (Como Park Zoo)
  • Susan Allen/Brookfield Zoo is looking for the Next Big Thing. If you find it please let her know.

If you have questions about what was mentioned above, and/or need contact information on who said what, please contact Dave Albert/Brookfield Zoo at dave.albert@czs.org.

Upcoming Wisconsin ZAG Regional Meeting

The NEW Zoo, Green Bay, Wisconsin, will host a regional ZAG member meeting on Thursday January 13. If you are interested in attending please contact Brent Walter/Henry Vilas Zoo at brent@vilaszoo.org for more information.

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Welcome New and Returning ZAG Sponsors!

Please welcome the following new sponsors, and visit their web sites:

Please welcome back the following 2010 sponsor that is supporting ZAG for another year, and visit their web site:

The Effect of China’s Changing Economy on Zoo and Aquarium Merchandise Buying

On Friday November 5, during the Sevierville Gift Show, ZAG held a breakfast talk for members about the effect of China’s changing economy on zoo and aquarium merchandise buying. Leading the discussion were Art Phillips of Phillips Intl/Cool Jewels and Cindy Benedict of Blubandoo, both of whom were able to provide insights on how China is affecting their business as vendors. 

Five or ten years ago, Chinese factories welcomed American business and made accommodations for them in terms of pricing, quality and timely delivery of orders, mainly because America was China’s biggest customer. Factories were usually centered in the bigger cities and millions of Chinese who lived in rural areas would migrate to the cities to work in these factories, leaving their families for extended periods of time to live in dorms.

Today, however, China’s own economy is booming and their factories are needed to produce more goods for the Chinese. The Chinese are becoming more wealthy, educated, and sophisticated about the standards of living enjoyed by people in other countries, and naturally they want those things too. More factories are being built in rural areas to be closer to the available labor pool. Factory owners and workers would rather produce cars, refrigerators and TVs rather than inexpensive jewelry or toys for the foreign market. As a result, workers often do not return to their old jobs after Chinese New Year because they have found better jobs closer to home. 

The result of this competition for available factories and workers has been that American orders are now no longer given priority. Orders that can’t be shipped out by mid-January often face an additional 30-60 day delay. Factory owners are emphasizing large volume orders with higher minimums. Quality control is often sacrificed because it can delay shipments. Art Phillips gave an example of how a 12” necklace can sometimes vary by 4-6 inches. Now he must spend extra time in China to ensure his merchandise is being produced to his specifications, since it is too costly (and too late) to perform quality control inspections here in America.

Prices from China are rising, too. A worker in Canton who used to earn $2.00 a day is now making $6-7.00 a day. Increased consumer demand from China and India has driven up the cost of raw materials. For example, the price of cotton has risen 25% recently. Shipping costs have gone up, so instead of shipping half-full containers, factories are often delaying shipping orders until they can fill a container. There are also now new security costs, such as x-raying the containers (which can run between $300-600 per container), and new child safety tests that must be performed, along with spot checks in America. Since there are only three certified labs in China for testing, this adds additional costs and delays to shipments.

Are there other options besides China for manufacturing? Some production is being moved to India, the Philippines and other Asian countries, but most still lack the needed infrastructure. China is still the best option for costs and the available labor pool because it is so heavily industrialized. 

Could production return to the United States? In some small ways, yes. Cindy Benedict stated that Blubandoo is bringing some simple sewing work back into this country, but added that most American workers no longer want to do the tedious precision work required in manufacturing jobs. Cindy said doing simpler sewing work domestically would allow her to provide smaller runs, more customization, lower minimums and more on-demand production. It was agreed that there is definitely a market for American-made goods, but price is still an issue. The cost of raw materials for Cindy’s products is pretty much the same in China or America, but labor costs are 40% cheaper in China. American consumers will accept a small price increase compared to foreign-made goods, however it may require educating the consumer on the retailers’ part, somewhat like the effort needed to educate consumers about “green” merchandise.

What can zoo and aquarium buyers do? Getting in next year’s orders in as early as possible will help with the uncertainty of production and shipping around Chinese New Year. Also having a “Plan B” in case your original order doesn’t come in. Finally, both retailers and consumers may have to realize that the days of extremely cheap merchandise coming out of China may be coming to an end. Therefore, retailers will have to review their pricing strategies, determine how to pass on increased costs to the customers while maintaining perceived value, and reassess their business plans and buying practices.

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ZAG 2011 Board Changes

Due to term limits as outlined in the ZAG by-laws, Steve Fairchild will finish his last three-year term as President of ZAG on December 31, 2010. Although Steve will continue to participate in ZAG as a member, he will step down from the Board for one year before he is eligible to run for office again. As President, Steve led the effort to incorporate ZAG as a non-profit organization with a more formal structure and greater financial accountability. Steve also helped lead the development of the web site, and created mutually beneficial relationships for ZAG with several key gift show companies. Our sincere and heartfelt thanks to Steve for all the hard work, dedication and leadership he has given to ZAG. 

On Thursday November 4 the ZAG Board of Directors elected Brent Walter/Henry Vilas Zoo as President of ZAG. Brent hopes to expand the regional meetings and build on the relationships with the sponsors.

The office of Treasurer, the role Brent previously held, will now be filled by Beth Feingold/Aquarium of the Bay. Due to the impending retirement in 2011of Mary Jane Brown from the Akron Zoo, the office of Secretary will be filled by Maria Lasecki/NEW Zoo.

On Saturday November 6, the results of the general election for two vacant Board seats were announced to the ZAG members at the annual dinner. The new Board members are Maria Lasecki/NEW Zoo (Green Bay, WI) and Tammy Ward/National Aquarium-Washington DC. Welcome to both Maria and Tammy!

A summary of the updated 2011 ZAG Board of Directors is listed below. Please feel free to contact any of them if you have questions, comments or suggestions.

President: Brent Walter
Henry Vilas Zoo (Madison, WI)

Vice President: Dave Albert
Brookfield Zoo (Brookfield, IL)

Secretary: Maria Lasecki
NEW Zoo (Green Bay, WI)
920-434-7841, ext 101

Treasurer: Beth Feingold
Aquarium of the Bay (San Francisco, CA)

Board Member: Bill Lucey
Rainforest Adventures (Sevierville, TN)

Board Member: Robin Miller
Lion Country Safari (Loxahatchee, FL)
561-793-1084, x240

Board Member: Kathryn Swinimer
Calgary Zoo (Calgary, AB)

Board Member: Tammy Ward
National Aquarium-Washington DC

ZAG Travel Sponsorship Interviews

In the fall of 2010 ZAG offered two travel sponsorships to members who worked at facilities too small to afford to send their buyer to a major gift show. The recipients received a four day, all expense paid trip to the Smoky Mountain Gift Show and the International Gift Exposition in the Smokies in November. During their trip the recipients were accompanied by ZAG board members and taken to the various ZAG meetings and mixers. This year’s winners were Cheryl Lopes of Buttonwood Park Zoo and Laurie VanderWal of Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge. Following are their interviews recounting their experiences.

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ZAG Interview
Cheryl Lopes, Buttonwood Park Zoo

Please describe your facility…acreage, annual attendance, major exhibits, most popular animals, etc.
We are a small zoo, of about 10 acres. We are also the 12th oldest zoo in the country. The theme of our zoo is “From the Berkshires to the Sea”. With the exception of our two Asian elephants, all of our animals are native to this area. Our elephants are our most popular attraction. They have both been here since the late 1960’s. Parents enjoy bringing their children back to see the elephants they enjoyed as children. Our annual attendance is just under 200,000. 

Please describe your merchandise operations…number of year-round shops, seasonal shops, square footage, seasonal carts, etc.
The North Woods Gift Store is our only gift store. It is located at the entrance to the zoo so zoo admission is not required to visit the store. It is about 1500 square feet and we are open year round. 

List some of your best-selling merchandise items and categories. Where possible, please include specifics like vendor name, color, etc. 
We have a large member base for a small zoo, so we have many “regulars” who visit the zoo. Our two best sellers are items which the kids can collect each week, Schleich animals and ERTL John Deere tractors from Learning Curve. We also do very well with any of the plush snakes from Rhode Island Novelty and beanbag size plush from Aurora. 

Are any items or categories trending downward in popularity?
We have never done very well with hanging animals or the ones with the extra long arms and/or legs. We were also the area destination for Webkinz, which have slowed down dramatically.

What merchandise are you looking for that you haven’t been able to find?
Reasonably priced Nature Sounds CD’s and I am always looking for Asian elephant items. 

What trends do you foresee in 2011?
If the trend continues from last summer, I foresee customers wanting more of a variety of clothing. We had an increase last year in T-shirt sales. In the past, we have pretty much carried unisex items for both adults and kids. This coming season however, we are going to carry women, men, girls and boys for the first time. 

What vendors or merchandise items were you most excited to find at the Sevierville or Gatlinburg shows?
I was thrilled to see Zoobooks! Also, I was happy to find a few new clothing vendors for some fresh ideas for tees for both kids and adults. I really was happy with the prices and ZAG discounts available from Wishpets on their name drop plush.

After attending the Sevierville and Gatlinburg gift shows and meeting the ZAG members, what changes will you make in how you buy or what you buy for your store?
I will be making the effort to attend more shows. I also won’t be afraid to ask for specials or discounts. So many vendors are willing to give them and I am certainly willing to take them! 

It is hard for smaller zoos, not being able to purchase large quantities of one item to help keep costs down. I am required to keep my inventory under a certain dollar amount so that is always a challenge for me. I will also utilize the contacts I made with ZAG members when looking for particular items in the future. 

What advice do you have for other ZAG members who work for facilities too small to afford to send their buyers to a gift show?
I would advise to make every effort to attend area shows if you can’t attend the bigger shows. Seeing the merchandise in person is great as well as the show specials available. I am keeping track of the money I saved this year on show specials and ZAG discounts so I can show my Board of Directors that it is worthwhile to send me to Sevierville next year!

Being able to meet everyone from ZAG and network with them was great. If being able to attend shows is completely out of the question, definitely touch base with other ZAG members with questions you may have. They are a wealth of knowledge!

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ZAG Interview
Laurie VanderWal, Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge

Please describe your facility…acreage, annual attendance, major exhibits, most popular animals, etc.
Turpentine Creek is a non-profit exotic cat rescue facility. We currently house 115 exotic cats (tigers, lion, cougars, leopards, bobcats, servals, ligers and a caracal) as well as a few other exotics (bears, a monkey, a coatimundi and a variety of hoof stock). The majority of our animals have been rescued from private owners, but we have also taken in cats from other situations such as facilities that are shutting down or breeders that are going out of business. Obviously, cats are the most popular animal with the white tigers being the most asked about. We recently rescued 2 ligers (lion/tiger hybrid) from a facility in Missouri that was downsizing and they have become a favorite of many guests as well. The refuge has 459 acres and currently have approximately 70-80 of it developed. About 40 animals are housed in small concrete enclosures, while the rest are in large ¼ to ½ acre habitat areas. We are constantly building new habitat areas and eventually would like to have all of our animals in large natural exhibits. We have approximately 30,000-40,000 visitors each year and hope to keep that number going up. 

Please describe your merchandise operations…number of year-round shops, seasonal shops, square footage, seasonal carts, etc.
The refuge is open all year round with our main entrance building acting as our gift shop. We do have a small gift shop in downtown Eureka Springs (the small tourist town about 7 miles from the refuge). The sales made at the downtown store are negligible and I do not do any separate buying for that shop. Its main purpose is to act as an information center and to send guests out to the refuge. Our square footage is currently around 800sq. ft… but we also house 2 macaws in that area, which reduces the space somewhat. The actual layout of the store is less then desirable, but we are hopefully renovating soon.

List some of your best-selling merchandise items and categories. Where possible, please include specifics like vendor name, color, etc. 
Our most popular merchandise is t-shirts, plush and anything with images of our own animals. We make our own magnets and picture boxes as well as sell simple 5x7 and 8x10 photographs (displayed on foam core) of our own cats. All of these items do very well; we also produce a calendar featuring our cats every year that does very well. T-shirts always do well, we have great luck with the “11 hidden white tigers” t-shirt from Polar graphics and almost any design from The Mountain – “tiger surprise” has been especially popular this year. All plush does well, especially low-end ($5 and under) the “super soft 8” plush from Rhode Island Novelty does great as does the mini 6” plush from Wishpets. Another big seller are all of the pillows form Rhode Island Novelty (raised pillow, round pillow and printed pillow). 

Are any items or categories trending downward in popularity?
Greeting cards do not do well for us at all. I have tried some from Leaning Tree and Tree-Free and neither sell well. I brought in African/ World music CDs a couple of years ago and they have been very slow moving. There has been a downward trend on the higher priced plush ($20 and up) – still sell, but much slower. In addition, a slow category is any kind of house wares/giftware, including candles, picture frames and stand-alone figurines/statues. Jigsaw puzzles have always done well for me, but they were down this year.

What merchandise are you looking for that you haven’t been able to find?
I am looking for a good source of books (coffee table/educational), but I found zoobooks at the IGES gift show and now found that source! I am looking for a coatimundi plush source, also a good source for cougar plush. Wild Republic has a 12” that is good, but I am looking for something in the 8” and under size.

What trends do you foresee in 2011?
This is a difficult question. I know that anything that we have with photos of our own animals does well, and I am hoping that the new items from CUPA/Tree Free with photos of our own animals on mugs, note pads, puzzles, water bottles, etc will do very well for us. I also have added a small section in our store of locally made artwork and pottery and included the EF Ivory products and Poo Poo Paper that I am hoping will do well as an alternative to the basic souvenir.

What vendors or merchandise items were you most excited to find at the Sevierville or Gatlinburg shows?
This is the toughest question. There were so many great vendors I met and items I found. It was such an invaluable experience for me. Specifically, the Zoobooks are a great find, also CUPA and their connection with Tree-Free doing custom work with photographs of our own animals. I am also excited about United Souvenir and Apparel company and the new designs on hoodies and the rhinestone design t-shirts as well as some new designs from Out of Hand (which are already doing okay, even during our super slow time).

After attending the Sevierville and Gatlinburg gift shows and meeting the ZAG members, what changes will you make in how you buy or what you buy for your store?
I am a staff zoologist at the refuge and gift shop buyer/manager is a job that I had no experience with before being given the job when the previous buyer quit about 7 years ago. I have gained all my knowledge by trial and error. This show and meeting all the ZAG members was a HUGE game changer for me. Having the contacts on the zoo/animal merchandise side is definitely invaluable, both for what I learned at the show, as well as what I have in the form of contacts for questions in the future. Because of my attendance to the show, I was able to come back with much more knowledge and enthusiasm that allowed me to convince my supervisors to invest in a Point of Sale system; an up-grade from a regular cash register and no inventory control. I have also been able to open up the dialog regarding the design and appearance of our gift shop and have a much better idea of what will help sales regarding placement and merchandising within the store. Because we are a small non-profit and are constantly struggling with finances, doing large purchases is difficult for us, I did learn to ask for delayed payment and separating orders over several months so I do not have to remember to make orders so often.

What advice do you have for other ZAG members who work for facilities too small to afford to send their buyers to a gift show?
I would definitely recommend applying for the ZAG scholarship – the show is definitely an invaluable source of vendor contacts, but just as important meeting other buyers was an amazing help to me. Even if you are not able to personally attend the show, use the ZAG and show information to find the vendors that will be at the show. I found vendors that I did not know existed simply by checking the ZAG newsletter for their vendors that are attending as well as the show website. Also, use the ZAG list of buyers, facebook page and website to ask questions from other members. The most important information for me at the show was gained by simply talking and asking questions at the ZAG mixer, the ZAG meeting room and the ZAG dinner. This can be done virtually from your own facility as well.

On a final note, I want to thank Kathryn, Dave, MJ, Brent, Bill, Beth and Steve and all the rest of ZAG for giving me this opportunity and helping me so much. This experience and the knowledge you have given me has become an invaluable asset in my gift shop managing and the more money the gift shop can make means the more money that can go to continue the refuges mission of rescuing exotic cats.

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