Retail Business Ideas for Towns With a Booming Tourism Industry

Retail ideas for tourist towns | Shopify Retail blog

Tourism presents an amazing opportunity for retail business owners. CNN reports that the travel retail industry has grown at a rate of 8.4% from 2006 to 2016. And it’s estimated to be worth $85 billion by 2020.

If you’re operating a retail storefront in a location with a booming tourism industry, you have different considerations than the average business owner. You’re serving a completely different type of customer. They’re not local. They may or may not know the area. Their shopping experience needs to look different. And that means the opportunities for retail are different.

Tapping into the context for travelers can help you think of some creative small business ideas that are sure to improve the customer experience and drive sales in touristy destinations.

Let’s look at a few.

Family-Oriented Businesses

The first retail business on the list is actually what sparked the original idea for this article. On a recent trip to Friday Harbor, located in Washington State’s San Juan Islands, I came across an indoor “playground” for families with young children.

Essentially, parents take their kids to the “shop” and pay an admission for them to join in and play. They can also leave kids under the care of A Place to Play’s staff.

It’s a brilliant idea because the area is known for its overcast and rainy weather — conditions that have the potential to lead to disaster for travelers with children. A Place to Play tapped into that and provided a haven for those common situations.

But your family-oriented, tourist-friendly retail business idea doesn’t have to be aimed at the kids. Rebecca’s Herbal Apothecary and Supply in Boulder, Colorado, sells health and wellness products — not exactly child-friendly.

To allow parents to spend more time in the store without worrying about restless children, the store created a small play area in the back corner. Complete with toys and books, kids can escape in the little nook while parents can browse stress-free. And store owners and managers don’t have to worry about kiddos running amok through their aisles.

Classes and Workshops + Retail Store

In today’s retail landscape, it’s not enough to just be a storefront. Consumers are challenging retailers to provide complete experiences, and that’s especially important for tourists. Their trip is a larger experience, and retailers can figure out how to create an in-store experience that complements their holiday.

One way to create an in-store experience to compel tourists to visit your shop is to provide classes or workshops with a local expert spin. In Asbury Park, New Jersey, Hot Sand is a glass-blowing studio that sells beautiful wares in addition to showing visitors how to do it themselves. It also gives customers a tangible product to bring home with them as a souvenir.

Another seaside location, in Cannon Beach, Oregon, is the home to Chocolate Cafe which has weekly truffle-making and chocolate-tasting workshops. Guests can go home with some new knowledge and an experience to boast about to friends — who may turn into future customers.

Personalized Products

Much like the DIY glass blowing at Hot Sand gives customers a handmade souvenir to take home, you can also provide personalization without the instruction. Rather than making shoppers customize the items, you can make it personal for them. This is a common tactic you see at beach communities and in theme parks where visitors can buy custom T-shirts made.

Shelley Grieshop of Totally Promotional recommends customized tote bags, which also provide utility.

“Visitors have something to hold all their souvenirs and travel gear,” she says. “Personalize the sturdy bags with your business name and perhaps a slogan, image or claim-to-fame of the area.”

Go a step further and personalize the bags for your customers with iron-on, embroidered or monogrammed designs. Customers will go home with a reminder of the destination, plus their own personal mark on it.

Local Marketplace

One thing that tourists love to do is experience local culture. Retailers can tap into this local exploration by supporting makers in their area.

The Working Artist in Belmar, New Jersey, is an art studio where local creatives rent out a space to make art — and shoppers can visit the store to watch them in action. Customers can also purchase a work of art to take home with them.

Meaghan Brophy, retail analyst at, points to the PopShop Market as another great example. The Fairfield, Connecticut, open-air market happens twice a year, once in the winter and once in the summer — which are also the area’s busy tourism seasons. Complete with local businesses, food trucks, and a full indoor bar, the PopShop Market is more than just a time to shop; it’s an entire event.

“Special events help tourists get a sense of the true community while also buying products from local businesses,” Brophy says. “Essentially, any retail operation that combines products that are exclusive to or representative of the area, delicious food and drink options, along with entertainment and activities is sure to be a top tourist destination.”

If you can’t frame your entire business model around supporting local artisans, consider other ways to collaborate. Perhaps you host a pop-in shop at your space, or you have an entire section of your store dedicated to supporting local makers. You could also commission a local artist to paint a mural in your space, like Dark City Brewing Company (another Asbury Park business). Whatever it is, give visitors a taste of your local community.

Shipping Stores

Whether it’s a quick weekend away or a long-term trip, most tourists have one thing in common: they need to send mail. It could be as simple as a postcard to Mom and Dad, or as complex as shipping a large work of art internationally.

Regardless of the circumstances, tourist destinations are ripe for shipping stores that not only mail letters and packages but also provide some of the postcards, packaging, and gifts themselves.

The Mail Room and Copy Center in Durango, Colorado, has an entire section of the store where visitors can find postcards that feature the local landscape to send back home. They also change up their inventory to feature seasonal items, a major convenience for tourists.

Services + Store

Another unique retail business I saw in Friday Harbor was the combination of a retail store and whale watching tour provider. Western Prince Whale Watching uses their storefront not only for tour bookings but also to sell souvenirs. Most of the products are geared toward whales, unsurprisingly.

The storefront is a great way for the business to talk casual shoppers into booking a tour and to cross-sell products to tour guests.

Many other retailers can combine a retail and a service-based business into one as well. Here are just a few ideas:

  • Transportation rental: Rent bikes, scooters and other means of getting around, and sell local souvenirs that renters would be interested in.
  • Spa services: Many spas sell the products they use. PURE Jungle Spa in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica, has chocolate spa treatments and they sell the most delicious chocolate bars in their storefront.
  • Dining: Do you own a restaurant or food truck? Bottle up your famous sauce in travel-sized containers for diners to purchase and take home.

Moving Forward With Your Retail Business Idea

Are you located in a destination with a booming tourism industry? To tap into the opportunity, look to what makes your location unique. Why do people visit here? What do they look to take home with them? And how can your brand fit into the overall experience, either through enhancing the journey or providing utility and convenience?

What creative retail businesses have you seen in tourist destinations?