When Californian Leah Parker walked into the Bonanza Gifts Shop on a recent Tuesday, she had no idea what she wanted to buy.
She let the merchandise speak to her, she says, an approach that resulted in an eclectic bag of gifts: a Las Vegas snow globe, various key chains, a couple of logoed T-shirts and a hat.
Parker's random method isn't reserved only for the vacationing tourist. Store buyers use the same method when choosing products to stock on their shelves.
"You get a lot of people who want to put things in our store," says Bonanza Gifts Shop assistant manager Angie Hurt. "Luckily, our buyer has an uncanny knack for having her finger on the pulse of American pop culture. When she sees things she knows" if they're right for the store.
There's a souvenir at every price point, from 99 cents to $900. There are practical items, Hurt says, such as the car mugs, ashtrays, key chains and apparel. Then there's the stuff with the kitsch factor: Dice clocks, snow globes, talking parrots and one of Hurt's favorites, a piggy bank in the shape of a stack of chips and playing cards.
"That's got kitsch," she says.
A souvenir is a personal thing and it can be difficult to predict whether something will be a best-seller or do a belly flop. That's why
Wendy Rock, buyer for the Gamblers General Store, just "shoots from the hip," she says.
"It's hard to say how I do it, it really is. I choose items I find appealing or I'll ask my staff what they think of it," Rock explains.
Buyers say they know historically what's popular and so they tend to stick with those themes. Apparel will always be big, as will kitschy things, gambling-related items, practical gifts and anything vintage Vegas.
Rock sells a lot of old parking meters ($129.95) that were the property of the city. Anything featuring the 'Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas" sign is a hot item, as is the minireplica of the sign, she adds.
Some things are predictable hits but on occasion, something unexpected becomes the hottest trend, buyers say. Right now, that's purses: dice-shaped purses, Chinese takeout box-shaped purses, regular purse-shaped purses.
Handbags are a big item at the California Gift Shop in the downtown California hotel, says manager Marianne Robbins. And that surprises her.
"We have this one handbag, it's denim and has Las Vegas (written) on it. When I first saw it I thought, 'Who would buy this?' " she says. "It's our best-seller."
Women are wearing Las Vegas-themed handbags, she says, as well as carrying change purses, cigarette cases, anything with a Las Vegas logo on it. Management keeps up to date on what other gift shops are selling and it tries to ensure a different selection than that found in stand-alone stores. Product selection is based on past sales and what hotel officials think might do well.
Usually, when a souvenir bombs in the California Gift Shop, it's because of something basic: wrong color, stupid slogan. People don't like unusual colors for their souvenirs, Robbins says.
But it's hard to say why an item flops at the Gamblers General Store; new glassware designs and Las Vegas picture frames have failed in the past. Perhaps the biggest failure that Rock recalls was the Royal Flush dog bowl. It was shaped like a toilet bowl and packaged in a very Vegasy box. It seemed like a good idea at the time, she says.
After 22 years working in the gift shop, Hurt says she can't think of a major souvenir failure.
"I think we have a souvenir for just about everybody. We've not had what I call real major dogs with fleas," she says.
She can, however, think of some things that took off that defied the rules of souvenir logic, even though there really is no souvenir logic.
The piggy bank shaped like stacked chips and playing cards ($6.99) has been a shocking success, she says, and the Las Vegas snow globes. The popularity of the Las Vegas-themed photo albums was unexpected, too.
"I'm always surprised by the snow globes. The plastic ones go all day long," she says.
Polly the Dirty Bird ($19.99) became an instant hit, even though it says absolutely nothing about Las Vegas. Instead, it says plenty about your mother and curses at people walking by. Those birds fly off the shelves two at a time, Hurt says.
Perhaps the most perplexing thing about souvenir shopping is when tourists come to Las Vegas and buy souvenirs that have nothing to do with the town or the Strip, says Miles Oda, executive corporate buyer for the Hawaiian-based ABC Stores.
Hawaiian things tend to sell well in the Las Vegas shops, Oda says, including coconut leis, flower hair clips, Hawaiian hand lotion and other items.
"You'd think people would be looking for stuff that's more Vegas-oriented," Oda says.
But if there's one thing Rock has learned over the years, it's that you can't expect people to shop practically and you can't predict their behavior.
"You can try to figure out what people want but the bottom line is they're going to pick what they think best reminds them of their trip," Rock says. "And it will amaze you what they'll pick to remember their trip in Vegas. I am amazed at the combinations people bring up to the register. Like the kitschy bank, who are they buying that for? You figure there's someone with a heck of a knickknack shelf."