Date: Aug. 25, 2004

Rolls of Certs, Snickers bars, Kleenex packs and miniature toy animals contribute to the success of the Anaheim (Calif.) Convention Center. “We don't really make any money on it but it is a real service to our guests,” said Larry Robinson, the former box office manager who now works part-time at the center and was the originator of the rolling convenience carts.

The center began using the carts, stocked with souvenirs and necessities, 20 years ago after Robinson thought they would be another way to help guests out during their stay. “Years ago I decided that men especially get in a bind being away from home and needing to bring something home to the kids,” he said. “They are stuck in the hotel all day and can't get out to shop.”

So Robinson wondered how a convenience cart stocked with small gifts along with items like aspirin, cough drops and sewing kits would go over. During his research, he discovered Aurora World Inc. in Compton, Calif., a Korean company that makes plush animals. Now every two to three months the convention center has 500 to 1,000 of the toy giraffes, monkeys and dogs shipped in. TREPCO in San Diego is the supplier of most of the other merchandise used like Tylenol, Band-Aids and candy bars.

Sean Hellenbrand, director of sales for the gift division at Aurora, didn't know of any other convention or concert venues that are selling the plush stuffed animals the way the Anaheim Convention Center does. “We usually sell to gift shops at venues or zoos and aquariums,” he said. “This is an a new one on me. I go to a lot of shows and I've never seen it done like this before. But it's a great idea.”

Robinson estimates uniformed employees who man the six carts, filled with items that sell from $1 to $15, average about $50,000 sold in merchandise a year. The carts are used about 75 days out of the year and on a busy convention weekend can draw up to $15,000 in revenue, he said.

Robinson considers the carts part of exemplary service. “We even have exhibitors who buy things by the case because they want to give something away at their booths,” Robinson said. Foreign guests have been known to stock up on the hard-to-get items in their homeland.

The carts' contents are based on customer demands, Robinson said. There are usually four or five types of candy bars, personal aids like Excedrin and Halls cough drops and then the small plush animals that are fashioned into purses or Velcro wrist wraps. Special events often mean bigger purchases. “We had three cheerleader competitions in March and April and sold about a hundred day,” Robinson said. The city goes out for bid on suppliers and this year TREPCO outbid CORE MARK, another Southern California company.

There are a few items you won't find on the carts – gum and bottled water. “We have a policy of not supplying gum at the center because it can cause problems,” Robinson said. “And our food service company Aramark sells bottled water.” He also tries to offer items from current center vendors if they supply them.

Prices of the cart items are rounded up for convenience and Robinson keeps the pricing competitive by checking out the cost at local vending machines and stores. Since the carts are mobile and have limited space, Robinson said a good selection is maintained by restocking the carts two to three times a day.

People from other convention centers have liked the idea but none so far has tried to duplicate it, Robinson said. “They go home and forget about it,” he said.

Interviewed for this story: Larry Robison, Greg Smith (714) 765-8950; Sean Hellenbrand, (310) 631-0700