For most people, the hospital is a place they want to avoid, but for some folks in Omaha, it's an oasis for hard-to-find goodies.
“We're the best-kept secret in town,” said Linda Rajcevich, the director of volunteer and pastoral services for Methodist Hospital and Methodist Women's Hospital. “We have things you can't find in the rest of the city.”
Much of the merchandise found in many of the area hospital gift shops are unusual because they primarily come from large markets in Las Vegas, Chicago, Dallas and Atlanta. The hospitals typically send representatives called buyers to markets twice a year, once in January and once in July to scour for hidden gems to bring back to Omaha. In between market visits, many of the gift shop buyers look for items online. The buyers try to limit the number of each item they purchase for the shop to preserve its distinctiveness.
“We try to have very few of any one item. Unique is key,” said Stephanie Fryers, manager of volunteer services for the Nebraska Medical Center. “We want to make it so when you buy a gift for a patient you don't have to worry about them getting a dozen of the same thing.”
As for what the buyers look for when they go to the markets or online, that varies.
“Some of our most popular items are jewelry, purses and watches,” said Patty Stewart, who serves as the gift shop coordinator at Bergan Mercy. “It's a wide variety. Elves were very popular this year around Christmas.”
The buyers have a major responsibility to keep a keen eye on changing trends while looking out for their customers.
“Our buyers take extra effort and the patients and their families are kept in mind when choosing our merchandise,” Rajecvich said.
“Our buyers are talented and have a good eye for what's new,” Fryers said. “A few years back Pillow Pets were hot. Right now it's silicon kitchen items.”
Like the buyers, the staff at the gift shops are almost exclusively volunteers. While there are many different hospital volunteering avenues, the gift shop is often the most sought-after position.
“We're lucky because most people who sign up want to work at the gift shop,” Rajcevich said.
At Bergan Mercy, the entire gift shop staff is made up of volunteers, some who have been longtime devotees of the shop.
“Our volunteer staff is very loyal. One person has been here 30-plus years,” Stewart said.
At Methodist and Methodist Women's Hospital, there are 130 volunteers between the two gift shops, including nine volunteer buyers. The Nebraska Medical Center has around 750 volunteers total and around 80 for their two gift shops, according to Fryers.
Not only are the gift shops popular, but they also are an essential part of the facilities' lifeblood in terms of funding. At Bergan Mercy, the Nebraska Medical Center, Methodist and Methodist Women's Hospital, all of the proceeds from gift shop sales are kicked back into the hospital.
“One hundred percent of our proceeds go back to the hospital,” Rajcevich said. “Right now they are going to surgery rennovation, but it changes based on need.”
Stewart estimates 60 percent of the customers at the Bergan Mercy gift shop are hospital staff, but there is also a large contingent of patients and their families. Another base of customers is a group of people who specifically seek out gift shops around town.
“Some people make a special trip to our gift shop that have no other reason to be at the hospital,” Stewart said.
“There's a segment of the population that just shops gift shops,” said Jody Hoatson, spokeswoman for Alegent Creighton Health. “They'll say to each other, 'Did you see what they had at the Bergan Mercy gift shop or what they had at the gift shop across town?' ”
But perhaps the most loyal customer base is the volunteers themselves.
“Our staff are also our customers,” Fryers said. “The joke is, working at the gift shop is the most expensive volunteer job around.”