Visitor Attraction retail is all about storytelling, says Continuum Group’s Erica Lee. We talked to her about her approach to buying, the retail refurbishment of The Real Mary King’s Close and why books are a staple of their ranges.

Interior of the shop at The Real Mary King's Close

For Group Retail Manager Erica, receiving new packages never gets boring.

“I’m like the kid at Christmas when boxes arrive with my name on it,” she says. “Even after all these years of doing the job, I get so excited when I see a product that’s really going to work. I love the whole process from start to finish, from thinking about the concept of a range to planning how a product sits on the shelf.”

Erica is responsible for the retail and merchandising for a diverse portfolio of eight UK visitor attractions. These include The Real Mary King’s Close in Edinburgh, Spinnaker Tower in Portsmouth, the Coronation Street Experience, Greenwood Family Park in North Wales, Oxford Castle and Prison, and more.

"With each product choice, there has to be a why."

But Erica is more than a buyer, she is a storyteller. Products she selects for each visitor attraction need to earn their place on the shelves by contributing to each venue’s brand and story, while also appealing to as wide an audience as possible. It is a finely tuned balancing act.

“Fundamentally, visitor attraction retail has to reflect and enhance the experience the guest has had,” she says. “With each product choice, there has to be a why. As we’ve grown more confident in our storytelling and our range development, we’ve become stricter at turning down products that would probably sell well but don’t sit with what we’re trying to achieve in the shop.”

Shoppers browsing products in The Real Mary King's Close.

For Erica and her team, books work perfectly and have been part of the Group’s core ranges for at least 10 years. Not only do they help articulate central visitor attraction themes, but they can help highlight seasonal occasions, such as Halloween, Easter or Mother’s Day, or link seamlessly to passing trends.

“Wellness is a trend that has worked well for us across several of our attractions. But it’s important to bring that theme into each attraction in a way that makes sense,” she says.

“At Greenwood, our outdoor activity park, we’ve brought in a title called Happy, which is a children’s book on mindfulness that complements the range there. At Spinnaker Tower, on the coast in Portsmouth, we do a lot of nautical things, so we have introduced wild swimming books. And at The Real Mary King’s Close, we’ve been able to include herbal apothecary titles, tying in with the Plague Doctor, our most important story commercially.”

"The breadth of range we get from Bookspeed is fantastic."

Erica works with Bookspeed to source books for Continuum’s gift shop ranges.

“Chris, our account manager, understands our business and knows our sites. We’ve spent time talking about the themes and different trends that we look at for each site, so he’s got a clear idea of what we’re looking for. We don’t always think the same way when looking at new products but that can be really helpful,” says Erica.

“The breadth of range that we get from Bookspeed is fantastic. We have had instances where we’ve gone out to publishers separately and we’ve ended up working with seven, eight, nine different people to buy two or three titles from each one. That doesn’t make sense for a business like ours, so to have that single point of contact through Bookspeed is absolutely brilliant. It allows us a diverse range of books but managed in a really easy way.”

"Everything we do is about telling authentic stories."

Book stack in a retail settingAt one of Continuum’s busiest attractions, The Real Mary King’s Close in Edinburgh, books are a core part of the range, helping to both generate income and amplify the storytelling. The attraction offers visitors a tour of its underground warren of streets, passageways and homes, sharing the stories of the people who lived and worked there throughout the centuries. It attracts a diverse audience including locals, weekend visitors, day trippers, and overseas holidaymakers. The gift shop has recently been refurbished, creating an opportunity to elevate the retail offering.

“At Mary King’s, we’re continually striving to elevate and maintain our five-star visitor attraction experience and status. So, it was important to us that our shop matched the quality of the experience that we’re giving to our guests on the tour,” says Erica.

“Because everything we do is about telling authentic stories, we also need to make sure that our retail setting also reflects that. Our shop is in the old Burgh Courtroom, a beautiful wood-panelled room with stained-glass windows, so we wanted a design that was going to be sensitive to that.”

The Real Mary King’s Close enjoyed a record-breaking year in 2023, welcoming more than 257,000 from 161 different countries. The new space provides the perfect vehicle to enter the new season with even more confidence, and Erica is optimistic.

“Mary King’s has seen a really strong return post-pandemic,” she says. “The city’s footfall was really strong last year, and we’re seeing more and more international visitors return. We’re optimistic about the year ahead and very proud to be showcasing the products in the new space.”

Be inspired by Continuum

Would you like help with your book range?

Get in touch for a conversation about how Bookspeed can simplify your book-buying or open a trade account today.