For The Love of Toys: Re-Imagining The Gift Shop

Posted by Sasha Bailyn on Thursday, June 5th, 2014

I have two warring sides within me: one that is a responsible, disciplined and serious adult, and one that embodies my sense of childhood wonder and imagination. Adult Me has a nasty history of telling Kid Me to grow up, resulting in several mass “genocides” of Kid Me’s collection of toys and characters (sweeping through with the dreaded plastic trash bag and rounding up toys for donation). I try not to regret my decisions, but this past week I was reminded by a dear friend that toys still have a very important place in my life. Sure, I have my Millennium Falcon and Lego pirate ship in my home office, but if Kid Me had her way, there would be far more characters and fantasy vehicles about (Adult Me gets embarrassed easily). But after this friend of mine, a mechanical engineer whose own apartment is filled with wonderful toys, invited me to spend an evening putting together a My Little Ponies train set and building Lego contraptions, I felt reconnected with my appreciation for playing with toys.


Soon after, I was at a nearby theme park and got the urge to acquire some mementos from a beloved IP that I had sifted out of my life long ago. Adult Me and Kid Me were finally in agreement: we needed some toys, not just for escape and playtime, but also to be reminded of what inspires us. I set out in this theme park with glee, more excited about the shopping I planned to do than the attractions themselves. In one instance, I went straight to the gift shop without even riding the ride. But I ended up disappointed: there wasn’t a single toy that I wanted! Everything seemed to be smallish and touristy, geared towards an audience with lower quality standards than the audiences of yesteryear.

This got me thinking about the gift shop experience. We all know that gift shops are a crucial economic vehicle for theme parks and museums. But they can also be exciting experiences in and of themselves: sometimes the promise of a toy to remember your day at the park is greater than the excitement of the attractions themselves. While some venues do a great job of theming their shops and adding “wow” factor, there is room for improvement across the board. Here are four ways I think gift shops can get better, with a nod to the shopping experiences that have proven popular in the modern day:

1. Be more like Amazon
Gift shops need to offer souvenirs that are easy to pack and transport. But what if they also offered a fun, interactive display showcasing more gifts available to order right there, which would meet you back at home? That way, you could pick out the toy you like most, not just the toy that is designed to be transported home in a suitcase. It would be cool to have a much broader selection of toys without needing to add any more shelf space. Perhaps you could simply scan the items you want in the store, check out via a credit card swiper, and be on your way without having to take a trip to the lockers.

2. Be more like Etsy
Gift shops should strive to offer more customized, hand-crafted, unique souvenirs, because nothing kills the magic more than when you can find the exact same gift online. For venues that have more than one gift shop, it would be infinitely more special (and even competitive) to shop if the stores offered gifts and toys that are truly unique to that corner of the park and hard to find online. These unique items would instantly become collectibles, making each purchase feel like a part of the venue’s history.

3. Be more like eBay
Picture a gift shop, let’s say it’s for Disneyland, that serves as the largest physical collection of rare and antique Disneyana. With the objects being purchased directly from Disneyland, the worries that go along with buying antiques online would vanish. Like in the Amazon model, all souvenirs could be shipped so folks don’t have to carry their treasures around. This model would make the buying experience more exciting and personal. There could even be special auction events held at this store.

4. Be more like the venue itself
I know, I know — there’s not enough money in the budget to expertly theme the gift shops too. But I still think gift shops should be more like the venue itself: a place to hang out that feels special. Some venues do a great job of achieving a “wow” factor, but there is still a prevailing feeling of retail-ness about them. Perhaps the payment process could become more back-of-house, keeping cash registers out of sight so there is more room for magic. Gift shopping could feel more like a themed experience if there were more context and backstory to the souvenirs as well. I’d love to see my favorite pirate character in the midst of a familiar sword fight with his nemesis and get the opportunity to buy the sword that one or the other is using.

This is just a starting point. Maybe this is more of Kid Me’s thinking (Adult Me has plenty of logistical reservations), but I think gift shops have huge potential to be standalone attractions even more than they already are, and this goes for theme parks, museums, and visitor centers alike.

In the meantime, I will continue to enjoy my Amazon, Ebay and Etsy toy hunting. My exquisitely designed action figure should be arriving in the mail any day now!

Sasha Bailyn

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