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Business Resources: Retail - July 2017


Retail Re-Do

A renovation helped Aquarium of the Pacific boost its revenue—but the process was not without its challenges

by Jodi Helmer

Pacific Collections, the retail store at Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California, has been successful since it opened in 1998, generating approximately $1,100 per square foot in revenue. 

Despite posting impressive numbers, Vice President of Operations John Rouse recognized the store was not living up to its potential. For starters, the design of the 3,400-square-foot space was outdated. The footprint was too small to stock a diverse mix of products, and the layout was problematic. 

“We had seven registers located 20 feet inside the door, which made it hard to queue; the location made the lines look long, and that made people leave—or not come in at all,” Rouse recalls. “We knew we could increase revenue and improve the customer experience, but to get there, we needed a bigger and more modern store.” 

In 2012, Aquarium of the Pacific launched a $3 million project to overhaul Pacific Collections, transforming it from a small space with dated fixtures to a light, bright retail outlet with enough space to increase traffic, add more products, and boost revenue.

From Idea to Execution

Before agreeing on a design, Rouse and Retail Director Jeff Spofford traveled to aquarium and museum stores across the United States for inspiration. The pair also visited Apple stores and the World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta to see how successful for-profit ventures designed their retail outlets. 

Back in Long Beach, Rouse and Spofford worked with architect EHDD, TG Construction, and Corman & Associates to bring their vision to life. The goal was to utilize modern design elements, a monochromatic color scheme, and an open floor plan.  But to get from idea to execution, Aquarium of the Pacific had to juggle a renovation while maintaining existing operations. 

“We couldn’t take the store offline [during construction] because it’s such a huge revenue-generator for us,” Rouse says.

To minimize the disruption during nine months of construction, movable walls were installed to block off areas of active construction. Kiosks were set up in the Grand Hall to entice shoppers when areas of the store were off limits, and the most disruptive work was scheduled after hours. During the day, Spofford says, “We were constantly cleaning up dust.”

Revenue dropped about 3 percent during construction, but Rouse says, “The project was proof that we could do major construction while remaining open and still doing decent sales.”

The new store was unveiled in 2013. The modern design features a white and light-blue color scheme. The neutral background helps the colorful merchandise stand out, while adding extra fixtures and expanding to 5,500 square feet allowed the shop to increase the number of SKUs by 50 percent to 15,000 items. The cash wrap was moved to the middle of the store to improve flow, and mobile units in the store made it easier to process a higher volume of transactions.

In addition to the visible elements, Aquarium of the Pacific did a lot of work behind the scenes to ensure its conservation mission was incorporated into the design. The renovation included LED lighting, drought-tolerant landscaping, low-flow fixtures, and other “green” building technologies that helped the renovation earn three Green Globes certifications from the Green Building Initiative.

The highlight of the design is a glass façade with a large-scale underwater image of a coastal California kelp forest that spans the entire back wall. It looks so authentic that shoppers often come into the store thinking it is an aquarium tank.

“It’s one of the crown jewels of the design,” Spofford says.


Pacific Destinations was actually too good to be profitable when it first reopened. (CREDIT: Michael Wells)

Growing Pains

Updating Pacific Collections to a larger, more modern space seemed like a perfect plan to entice shoppers and increase revenues—but it did not happen. Instead, the store failed to meet expectations for traffic or revenue.

“We loved the design but we needed that to translate into sales,” Rouse says.

Aquarium of the Pacific brought in a consultant to help understand the reasons the renovated retail outlet was underperforming. The problem: The updated design led guests to believe it was a high-end retailer, not an affordable place to purchase souvenirs.  

“People looked in but didn’t come in because it was perceived as too expensive,” says Spofford.

The consultant suggested adding a greeter out front and placing a sale table near the entrance to help entice customers into the store. Adding more fixtures to fill out the space also helped. 

“The space was so much larger than we envisioned,” Rouse recalls. “We went from having 3,000 jam-packed square feet to 5,500 square feet that, looking back, looked a little bare.”

The tweaks worked. The number of shoppers increased, and revenue went up. Both 2015 and 2016 broke revenue records, and Pacific Collections, which now generates sales topping $940 per square foot, is on track for another impressive year.

“We had some hiccups, but we always knew that we could do the revenue numbers if we made the investment to do things right,” Rouse says. “We couldn’t be happier with how it turned out.” 

Rethink Retail Packaging

From cellophane-wrapped boxes and see-through windows on product packaging to branded bags, retail operations are filled with plastic—and discarded plastic is a major threat to marine life. 

A recent study published in the journal Marine Environmental Research noted the risks range from entanglement and ingestion to exposure and pathogens. 

1707_biz_retail_pckgIn 2015, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Shedd Aquarium, and National Aquarium founded the Aquarium Conservation Partnership (ACP) to set policy goals, which included a significant reduction is plastics throughout their facilities. Since then, 20 additional aquariums have signed on to participate in the 2016/2017 pilot program.

“A selection of the toys and other products [in our retail location] come in single-use plastic packaging,” says Andrew Fischer, conservation director for SSA, a Denver, Colorado-based firm that provides visitor services for cultural attractions. Fischer is SSA’s general manager of merchandising at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and adds, “We wanted to come together and talk about the problems and how we could work together to solve them.”

Aquarium of the Pacific joined ACP and, as part of its participation, the aquarium is doing a plastics audit to determine the number of single-use plastics in retail and food service and working with vendors to create green packaging. The Pacific’s John Rouse notes, “The aquariums participating in ACP have such big buying power, we should be able to make a difference.”

Fischer conducted a plastics audit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in 2016; that initiative by SSA led to changes in more than 19 products to redesign plastic-free packaging at all of SSA’s aquarium and zoo properties. The effort is being made in partnership with several of SSA’s largest vendors, including Wild Republic and Melissa & Doug.


These toy turtles are part of the non-plastic retail offering at Monterey Bay Aquarium. (CREDIT: Monterey Bay Aquarium/Andrew Fischer)

The new packaging also includes conservation messages about the impact of plastics on the oceans and marine life, as well as requests to reuse or recycle packaging when possible. The redesigned packaging is appearing in retail locations at the aquarium this summer.

Calling it a “major shift in how retail goods are packaged,” Fischer believes there could be a bonus to packaging free of plastics. Cutting out plastics could remove a step in the manufacturing process, lowering the cost of goods—a savings the aquarium would pass along to consumers. 

“This isn’t just a direction we want to take in Monterey,” Fischer says. “We want our vendors to offer it to competitors; we want to be the start of a major change.”