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How theme parks can increase guest spending: Sell all park merchandise online, too

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Published: August 25, 2009 at 7:44 AM

On our way out of SeaWorld Orlando, the final stop on our summer theme park tour, Laurie said to me:

"I wanna stop in a store to see if they have this mug."

It was hardly an unusual request. Millions of theme park visitors make a last-minute purchase on their way of a park. That's why Disney built its largest store - the Emporium - right at the end of Main Street U.S.A. in its popular Magic Kingdoms. And Dollywood's taken it a step further. It's placed the exit of the park inside its Emporium, making it impossible for visitors to leave without one last look at thousands of park souvenirs.

Dollywood park exit - right through the store.

Earlier in the day at SeaWorld, Laurie had seen a cute coffee mug with a shark on it, but she hadn't bought it. She didn't want to carry it around. She wasn't sure that she wouldn't find something she wanted more, later in the day. Many of us have made the decision, when browsing through the shops at a theme park.

But... (and you can see where this is going, can't you?), when we searched through the souvenir stores and stands at the SeaWorld's exit, we couldn't find the mug. And we weren't about to hike all the way back through the crowded park to buy it, not with everyone's feet dead tired and the family hungry for dinner.

So what did we do? What millions of other consumers do in the same situation: We walked out, without buying the mug. (Or any other souvenir, since we were so fixated on the mug.)

I've been writing about ways that theme parks can increase their per-guest spending, not by nickel-and-diming visitors, but by increasing the value of what they offer, so that visitors will want to spend more. Theme parks, collectively, are leaving millions of dollars of profit in consumers' wallets each year by not making it easier for those consumers to buy the merchandise that they've already decided they want.

Visitors should have one last chance to buy anything available in a park when they exit at day's end. SeaWorld's set-up, with a relatively small store and a few outdoor stands, wasn't anywhere near large enough to stock everything from park's entire product line.

But even if it were, that wouldn't be enough to capture every available visitor dollar. Parks need the ability to close sales with visitors even after they're returned home. Parks must stock their souvenir inventory online.

Disney is the master at this. Disney's created an online store of items from its theme parks. You can buy photos taken of you in the Disney theme parks even after you've returned home. No matter how long ago you last visited a Disney theme park, if you ever think, "Hmmm, I'd really like a pair of mouse ears" - boom! - you are no more than a few clicks away from having them delivered.

There are darned good reasons why Disney enjoys the highest per-guest spending in the theme park business. And this level of follow-through is one of them.

I looked around the SeaWorld website later that week, and if Shamu's selling stuff online, I couldn't find the link.

Again, I have no interest in buying cheap junk from theme and amusement parks. Nor do I want parks to spam me after my visit with offers to buy more stuff, if I gave up my e-mail address when I bought my ticket online. But if there is an item, from the back of the park, that I wished I'd bought but didn't, I do want the ability to go get it online or at the park exit, whichever is most convenient for me.

For the stuff I want, make it as convenient as possible for me to spend my money. Before my visit, let me buy print at home tickets online, whenever I want. And let me easily buy anything the park sells - before, during or after my visit, as well.

Earlier:

Readers' Opinions

From 69.242.131.134 on August 25, 2009 at 7:59 AM
I did take advantage of Disney's photo pass services when we got back to Kansas City, MO. The day we left Animal Kingdom it was pouring down rain. I was so upset that I didn't get the family photo from our visit. I was pleasantly surprised that not only could I purchase that photo, but could add it to merchandise to create a personalized souvenir. The photo pass also offers stock photos of some of the attractions/animals. Universal also offers this service, but there is no personalization available
From Melissa Faulkner on August 25, 2009 at 8:37 AM
Robert I agree about being able to buy Disney stuff online but not everything. When we were in EPCOT in July, my husband wanted a cd of " Off Kilter" but at the time didn't want to pay $20. Now he wishes he had. BUT Disney doesn't offer these cd's online nor can I find anyplace on the web that does. So basically we'll have to wait until we go back to EPCOT. Big problem considering next year we're doing Universal instead of Disney. When I emailed Disney about the cd's they replied they didn't sell those online but they gave me great list of other Disney stuff to buy. I don't think a stuffed Mickey is quiet the same. Geesh.
From Amanda Jenkins on August 25, 2009 at 8:48 AM
Melissa, I have also wanted something from Disney World and couldn't find it online. Call Disney World's customer service. If you can tell them what you want and where it was that you saw it, they will ship it to you. My mother has used this a lot for my kids. I have taken advantage of how easy Disney makes their merchandise readily avaiable even after you leave the parks.
From Anthony Murphy on August 25, 2009 at 9:08 AM
As a Disney Store Cast Member, I completly agree with you Robert to no end! I have had so many guests, at least three a day, that come into the store and ask for Mickey Ears or Autograph Books.

However, you used to be able to return your park stuff at the store and get a refund. Not anymore, strange!

From 74.233.40.180 on August 25, 2009 at 9:17 AM
Your ideas a good. But a majority of the items should be park only. Most theme park visitors, specially those going to Disney go multiple days, some people leave half the day and come back (people with small children). So there are still many opportunities to get that item. Item scarcity and the impulsive buys at the park would not be the same if you could get them at the Disney store in your local mall or online. You want that park souvenir at the park. Buying it online is not the same. You are walking away with something from your day, something that means many things.. not just that you wanted that mug. If disney put up a theme park merch store it should be accessible with your theme park ticket, photopass or something, and then expire.
From Gareth H on August 25, 2009 at 9:23 AM
Just on a side note. Its great that you can buy items online after and its great that you can print tickets at home BUT why oh why do some sites now deem it acceptable to charge you $1, or $1.95 to let you print yur tickets at home?

Shouldn't they be giving US a discount as we've just saved them printing costs?

I think that these types of charges are really scraping the barrel to get more from your pocket.

From Anthony Murphy on August 25, 2009 at 9:31 AM
Oh, I forgot to put down that Disney seems really good at doing the merchandise grab and the online sales. If something comes broken from what they shipped, they will replace it and send it to you. However, they usually will not ship one of a kind thing
From Robert Niles on August 25, 2009 at 10:25 AM
Service charges are a price increase. Period. And if a park increases prices on people who buy in advance, it stands to reason that they might end up with fewer people buying in advance.

Remember, the act of purchasing a ticket pretty much commits you to a visit. If you don't buy in advance, you can bail, up until the moment you hit the parking lot. It's in park's interest to have as many people committed to future visits as possible. (Thus, the brilliance of Disney World's low-price-per-day, 10-day, no-expire passports.)

Readers are correct to point out that Disney's online store does not carry everything, but that its operators tend to be good about working around that to get you what you want. Ultimately, parks should move toward an inventory system that integrates with an online storefront, allowing online to carry everything, and for park managers to have better data on what is (or is not) selling, in the park and online.

For example, stuff that sells relatively better online might be more prominently featured by the park exit, since that's the sort of thing that people are looking for once they get home.

From Jason Jackson on August 25, 2009 at 8:07 PM
Robert, it is kind of hidden, but try this store, it may or may not have your item. Also, try calling the park, they usually can ship the item.

Right now it says the site is down for maintenance, but I know if you call the park, they will get the item and send it to you. I would go to the website and look for their call center number (the one for the park, not the online site).

From 216.196.185.2 on August 25, 2009 at 2:37 PM
I think some of the parks may allow you to make a purchase, and have it delivered up to the front for pickup when you exit the park. I remember in 2000 while at Disney and staying at a Disney resort, we were able to have our purchases delivered to the resort or pickup. This make it possible to buy something expensive or fragile and not worry about carrying it around the park all day.

The parks should have a delivery method to move your purchases to the front of the park for pick up (with a reasonable time period for delivery.

From TH Creative on August 25, 2009 at 3:06 PM
Sell more Jungle Cruise stuff. Giant butterflies and boats. They'd line up to buy 'em as the CMs were taking them out of the boxes.

Also a create a variety of Pirates of the Caribbean guy-liner.

From Justin Trinh on August 25, 2009 at 4:02 PM
I know for sure SeaWorld offer a package pickup service where guests can purchase their gifts and have them sent to the front of the park to pick up as they exit. I believe Universal as well as WDW have a similar service.

As for an online store for SeaWorld, its strange because there use to be a link for a "Shamu Store" but now it is nowhere to be found.

From 97.102.58.29 on August 25, 2009 at 4:17 PM
Most Parks (all in orlando offer package pick-up so you can shop all day and pick it up on the way out. If all the merch was online and people knew this the parks would use all kinds of profit. Most people will just "buy it when we get home" and forget or lose interest. Or shut up there winning kids and hope they forget by the time the land back in Idaho. And heck why even bother having any stores throughout the park? if everything you ever wanted was in a store in the front then why bother browsing through shops?
From 71.207.122.68 on August 25, 2009 at 4:18 PM
I've got the solution to make everyone happy. The consumer will get what they want and the merchant will increase their sales. Within the exit shops should be a kiosk type set up with computer terminal with access to all merchandise offered at the park. Order it while you still want it. Don't let the customer leave without it, by the time most people get home they will either forget about the item or the importance of getting it while "in the moment" will have passed. You remove any second thoughts. You also eliminate the consumer's responsibility of packing and transporting their purchase. Sure there will be a shipping fee, but a small price to pay for that sought after item. And with airline baggage fees and restrictions this could be viewed as a convenience to many people. I think most people would step up the kiosk and order that mug, maybe even have it on the door step greeting them when they return home from the trip?
From Robert Niles on August 25, 2009 at 8:04 PM
TH remains obsessed with building his combo MIB/Jungle Cruise, Safari Shoot-'Em-Up dream ride. And then selling picket signs to outraged PETA members at the gate.
From Tony Duda on August 25, 2009 at 8:59 PM
Off-Kilter has their own web site. They are an independent group that does those gigs at the Canada Pavilion. You can even hire them for private parties. (I am not affiliated with Off-Kilter, just like them).
From TH Creative on August 26, 2009 at 4:17 PM
FINALLY, I get my friggin' hippos with friggin' laser beams!
From Jack Curley on August 26, 2009 at 9:13 PM
Another park that's very good at this is Hershey. Their biggest gift shop isn't even within the park's gates. The World of Chocolate is between the park and the parking lot, but has its own separate lot for non-park guests.
From 170.37.244.11 on August 28, 2009 at 9:55 AM
I think it would be a great grabber of additional revenues for the parks.
Think about getting that Birthday, Aniversary, Easter, Graduation, Christmas etc. gift and besides just a set of airline tickets, getting a Magic Kingdom t-shirt, a set of ears, etc...Getting to go down for the Food and Wine festival and getting a prepaid card and a shirt or hat... The way you always tease your spouse about that trip down Splash Mountain, or the way they "screamed like a little girl" on The Hulk coaster. How funny to surprise them with a little gag gift for the next trip....How about your son finally getting all A's on his report card and getting him that watch he was looking at as a reward.

All missed opportunities to increase overall revenues...create strong brand loyalty...and keep the magic going even when the consumer's dollars aren't physically there.

From s b on August 28, 2009 at 3:20 PM
YES!!!!!!!! This makes so much sense. There were many occasions this summer when I wanted to buy park merchandise but was either in too much of a hurry to leave the park at closing time or did not want to take time away from the attractions during the day to shop in their stores. (I was at Disney World for a week and Busch Gardens & Six Flags Great Adventure for one day each). Many parks do have e-stores (i.e. Cedar Point, with limited merchandise) but Disney actually DOES NOT sell most park merchandise online. Plenty of Disney stuff, yes, but actual park mementos are virtually absent from their online store. I'm talking trading pins (only a small selection is online), attraction-specific merchandise (i.e. Space Mountain t-shirt), etc. For most of the merchandise, you must actually go to WDW or DL (at least, you'd have to make it to Downtown Disney's marketplace). The online store in your link was an improvement over the previous selections online, but, TRUST ME, their selection is still very, very skimpy.

And with Six Flags losing money you'd think they would have an online store to increase profits, but they don't. What a great suggestion, Robert. (Now, as far as the idea of better breakfasts.....I'm not a fan of the idea -- more food in belly = more barfing on the thrill rides!!)

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