Camp Stores: Source for Essentials & More
The campground store can be the difference between a successful campground with happy guests and a less successful campground with guests who frequently leave the park to buy essential camping items.
Stores are a common fixture at campgrounds, with 81% of those parks responding to the 2010 economic survey conducted by the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC) saying they operate a store. The percentage response was the same across all sizes of campgrounds.
According to the survey, the average annual sales per store was $126,333 with $40,000 being the median sales, meaning half the campgrounds had sales above this figure and half had sales below.
Operators who consider a store an after-thought should give it a second thought.
At Leisure Systems Inc. (LSI), franchisor of the Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park Camp-Resorts, campground stores are big business.
“Jellystone owners don’t take their stores lightly,” said Jane Eaton, LSI’s director of operations and owner of a Jellystone park in Nashville, Tenn. “That income is huge. In a Jellystone Park, 16% to 30% of the revenues come from stores. Store income is not to be trifled with, at least not in the Jellystone arena.”
Likewise, at Kampgrounds of America Inc. (KOA), the home office staff helps new owners as well as veteran ones make smart decisions about their campground stores. KOA requires every campground to have a store, but beyond that it sets few requirements.
“We do suggest they carry groceries and RV supplies and also souvenirs if they are in a high tourist destination,” explained Isabel Frederick, longtime merchandise manager for KOA and now a business development consultant.
“I’ve always felt there is a lot of money to be made in the store area, but it’s up to the individual owners. A lot of it is trial and error. Retailing isn’t something you can teach overnight. It’s something you grow into,” she continued. “They should set a goal based on camper nights. We have some campgrounds whose stores gross $22 per camper night and some do $3 per camper night. I like to say a minimum should be $5 net per camper night.”
Kelli Morse, Frederick’s successor at merchandise manager, tells franchisees, “Make sure you buy right, for the right price, display it right and create a ‘buy-me’ atmosphere, especially if you are a seasonal park with return customers. You want to change it up (displays) from time to time and sell at a good profit margin. I also tell them to sell what their customers want, not what they want. And if you make a mistake (and buy something that no one wants to buy), get rid of it!”
Frederick added, “I always encouraged owners not to make their store a museum. Get rid of the old.”
Frederick maintains that campground stores don’t have to view the nearby big box store as a major competitor, as long as they price their items correctly.
“If you have milk at 3.89 and I am a camper who needs milk, I will buy the milk from you. I’m willing to pay 20% more for the convenience. A camper, if they need a few items, will go ahead and buy them and pay the extra dollar amount for the convenience and not have to fight the people at Walmart down the street,” she said.
Anyway, the best return on investment can be made from souvenirs and gift items, she continued. “Basically, you can sell a gift or souvenir for whatever the camper is willing to pay,” she said.
KOA maintains a suggested price structure that it passes along to franchisees on recommended margins. It states the markup on milk and bread should be between 16% and 20% and for gifts and souvenirs between 45% and 50%. “Everything else is in between,” Frederick said.
Both women recommended campground owners attend gift shows, usually held over the winter, to view the latest gift items, and for KOA franchisees, they encourage them to attend the KOA Expo held in conjunction with the annual convention staged each fall.
As for fads, Frederick thinks the days are gone when campground stores could carry fad items and do well on them.
A generation ago, Troll dolls were big – “campground stores were loaded with them,” she recalled. “If you’re carrying trolls right now, good luck!”
ARVC sponsors seminars on campground stores and offers advice on how to run them. Jeff Sims, ARVC’s director of state relations and program advocacy and a 40-year veteran of park ownership, says knowing what to stock can be tricky. He said he recalls his father saying one time at their park in Branson, Mo., “Why are you carrying that item? We don’t eat that.”
“Forget about what you want,” Sims advised his father. What does your customer want?”
Campers need the basics but no one approach fits all, he said. “I would always recommend you stock your shelves full. I hate to see one bottle of ketchup on the shelf. It doesn’t instill much confidence.”
Ocean Lakes Sandy Mart Like a Supermarket
The campground store at Ocean Lakes Family Campground in Myrtle Beach, S.C., is like a supermarket. The 12,500-square-foot Sandy Mart stocks some 15,000 different items, from groceries, gifts and souvenirs to beachwear, hardware and fishing tackle supplies for salt water and fresh water fishing. The store, renovated in 2005, serves one of the nation’s largest campgrounds: On any given weekend, 30,000 campers may be at Ocean Lakes and an estimated half million visit the park on an annual basis.
It’s a challenging task for Sandy Mart Manager Wade Cooper and his fulltime staff of four to keep the store stocked with the camping essentials.
Adjacent to the Sandy Mart is a laundry featuring 100 machines and a restaurant. The complex has become a hub of activity for campers who can enjoy dining, shopping, entertainment, free Wi-Fi and a great laundry facility.
“Lately we have tried to increase our registered trademarked (Sandy brand) items,” noted Barb Krumm, marketing manager at Ocean Lakes. “Part of that may be Generation X and younger who have grown up with Disney and brand name loyalty and awareness. We've had more requests for that. Young ones are very marketing savvy consumers.”
Like other campgrounds, the Sandy Mart also faces stiff competition from nearby stores. The Sandy Mart competes with a Walmart, a Foodliner, a Piggly Wiggly and a Walgreen’s within two miles of Ocean Lakes’ front gate.
“We have the convenience factor; we’re right here on the campground. Why would you want to go anywhere else,” Cooper reasons.
ARVC’s Sims recalled a fellow campground owner in Missouri years ago whose rating in a campground directory was reduced because he didn’t carry certain items in his store. He had tried to compete with a Walmart down the road but came up short so he didn’t stock the non-competitive-priced items.
“One day he called me down to his campground and showed me a mobile shed he had set up at his campground. Painted on the front was this sign: Bob’s Ice and Advice.”
He carried one box of cereal, a can of beans and one sample of other items that the directory representative said he should carry but he listed them at outrageous prices.
“I asked him what is the advice and he said, ‘Don’t buy anything. I don’t want to restock.’”
The friend got his higher rating the next year.
Unique Gift Shop
Those crazy days of inflexibility are long gone, but meeting public needs can still be tricky. Some stores have sought to become destinations in themselves.
Consider the CarrollWoods RV Park at Grapefull Sisters Vineyard near Myrtle Beach, S.C., which operates a unique campground store known as The Gift Shop. Aside from the routine items carried by campground stores, the shop conducts daily wine tasting and offers a variety of wines and jams and jellies from the vineyard which is located next to the campground.
The shop features jewelry and artwork by local artists, provides portrait painting (“Masterpiece in Minutes”) on site and sponsors a book club featuring local authors who come to discuss their books. For example, on March 23, author Bill Thompson led a discussion of his latest book, “Celia Whitfield’s Boy.”
“Having a gift shop sets us apart from other campgrounds” in the Myrtle Beach area, said Christine Carroll, manager of the 35-site park which opened in 2009, three years after the vineyard began commercial operations.
Indeed, some campgrounds stay open year-round to serve local residents, even when the campground is closed.
Ken and Iris Shupe run such a store at their Bay Center/Wallapa Bay KOA Bay Center, Wash., an oyster and crab fishing village of 400 people located on a point jutting into a bay off the Pacific coast. The 65-site campground is open from April 1 to Dec. 1 but the store is open all year.
“Mostly, it’s important in our mind to be part of the community and help out,” said Iris. “The next closest store is a 30-minute drive. It helps the community. They know we’re here.”
In winter, the Shupes stock fewer camping supplies and more of what local residents might want, she explained. Those same customers remain loyal through the summer as well.
The Shupes break even over the winter, but still consider the effort worthwhile.
Not only have the Shupes extended the store season since buying the campground in 2011, they’ve also extended the season from October to the first of December to accommodate hunters.
What Campground Stores Carry
The 2010 economic survey conducted by the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC) provided lots of data on campground stores. Among its findings were these most common items carried in stores:
- 98% carried RV supplies and accessories.
- 94% carried ice cream.
- 91% carried personal care items.
- 80% carried dry groceries.
- 80% carried souvenirs and gifts.
- 76% carried T-shirts and sweatshirts.
- 75% carried toys.
- 73% carried hats.
- 71% carried sundries.
- 69% carried dairy products.
- 67% carried recreational equipment.
- 40% carried frozen foods.
- 39% carried bakery products.
- 36% carried magazines and newspapers.
- 33% carried beer and wine.
- 11% carried fresh fruit or vegetables.