Making the Connection: Retail and Museum Identity

Retail can be a great way for museums to strengthen their identity and communicate with their audience. So why do so many managers think of stores only in terms of how many postcards they can sell?

In 1994, Major League Baseball went on strike. The World Series was cancelled for the first time since 1904. After the strike, thousands of fans across the U.S. and Canada expressed their disgust by boycotting games. Some say baseball has never recovered.

There’s a lesson there for museums: organizations that fail to stay in the public eye pay a harsh price. Take the J.P. Morgan Library in New York City. Kept minimally open to the public via its online shop, the Morgan is effectively shuttered until its renovation is complete in 2006. In Toronto, the Royal Ontario Museum has done just the opposite: it will remain open during its renovation, but has closed two of three stores.

Both museums should have found a way to keep their physical stores open and at full strength.  Directors might argue that people visit museums, not stores, and no doubt the Morgan and the ROM will reopen with a tremendous flourish and a surge of visitors.  However, maintaining a vibrant retail capability is more important strategically than many museums are willing to admit. Retail does so much more than just make money. It is the great connector, enabling museums to reveal their identity, extend brand awareness and develop community.

Retail should be seen as the key to building and selling the museum brand. Instead, it has become a paradox: one of the most visible, but under appreciated, elements of a museum’s identity. In the best scenario, the retail experience is an integral part of the larger museum experience, keeping people connected to the museum’s unique ideas.  It is not merely in sync with the visitor experience but one that actually supports and enhances it.

To make retail a key strategic brand element, museums have to improve their capacity for thinking about their brand. “Where retail is taken seriously, stores reflect their museum’s respective exhibits and displays,” says Susan Dunlop, a retail consultant with LORD Cultural Resources in Toronto. “Everything in the store relates to the mission and mandate of the museum. They are the brand.”

Ninety percent of the products sold by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art were created exclusively for the institution. Its physical and online stores are touted as destinations with unique products.  Their message is an appealing one: “you can only get it here.”  But you don’t have to be big to link museum identity to retail.  The work of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, for example, is clearly identified with Maritime folk art.  Its Maud Lewis collection has made the Gallery unique. Not surprisingly, products derived from Lewis’ art are among the store’s bestsellers. “Because the art defines the Nova Scotia experience, the huge product line is ridiculously successful,” says shop manager Donn Sabean. She admits her Maud Lewis products are an anomaly, yet their success highlights the impact when there is a well-defined connection between product and the museum brand.

Unfortunately, all too many museums miss such opportunities because they haven’t effectively linked the role of their store in fulfilling their mission. All too often, store administrators feel pressured to rake in the dollars at all costs. Naturally enough, earning money is the clarion-call of museum retailers. But trouble arises when profitability becomes the sole motivator, and museums begin following consumers instead of leading them.

“It isn’t fair to insist on the bottom line,” says Dunlop. “That’s when the crap appears. The worst is those gift shops that feel they absolutely have to make a lot of money and start offering products that are cheap or trendy, that do not directly relate to the exhibitions and collections of their particular museum.  They push the ‘related limit.’  Another trait is purchasing gift products that can be bought in any store down the street.”

Finding a niche
What do museums think the market wants, and how far should they go to cater to their customers’ desires?  Paco Underhill is a shopping researcher who believes North Americans are dangerously over-retailed. In other words, too much is for sale through too many outlets.  Similarly, others have noticed that traditional brands are becoming a blur for shoppers.  Clearly, retail needs an edge.

When products or services are perceived as undifferentiated, intangibles, like experiences, become the key selling point.  That’s the museum edge, and their stores can help enhance it. In an age lacking social consensus, museums have a trump card: natural differentiation and latent communities of interest.  Museums offer experiences, ideas, and objects not found in other places, and people take pride in identifying with an organization that does things differently. To become more robust organizations, however, museums must play this distinctive card. The right store can help.

Most retailers sincerely believe their work enables the museum’s intellectual mandate, but something is holding them back from advancing this goal. André Wattie, manager of retail and rides at the Toronto Zoo, says,  “the educational side is not our mandate.”  His boss agrees. “My first concern [for retail],” says the Zoo’s General Manager and Chief Executive Officer Calvin White, “is to move product that sells.”  Leslie Smith, retail operations director at the Vancouver Aquarium concurs. “We have to be a business,” she says. “We have to be self sufficient.” But is this attitude driving retailers to the wrong conclusions? Are they unwittingly being deterred from more innovative retail strategies?  Worse—are they underestimating their customers?

The prevailing belief is that museum visitors want souvenirs: small, inexpensive things they can take home as a remembrance of their trip, even something as modest as a postcard. A second prevailing belief is that the target audience is unsophisticated—they want the glow-in-the-dark key chains, the chocolate moose droppings, the rubber snakes.

“Our sales tell the story,” says Lillian Hamilton, general manager of the Fortress Louisbourg Association in Nova Scotia.  People love to admire her beautiful 18th-century reproduction leather buckets, but at $330 apiece, she doesn’t sell many. Porcelain is another very slow mover. “Twenty per cent of the clients pay for the reproductions, 80% want the key chains,” she says.

But museum retail that settles for imprinting—putting their name on a cap, a T-shirt, or a postcard—is not engaged in effective branding. Too many museum stores are selling products that offer neither a price advantage nor a functional or emotional benefit.  The inability of museums to resolve this problem is what’s keeping them and their stores from truly contributing to the organization’s success.

Museum stores shouldn’t necessarily stop doing the bottom line stuff – the fridge magnets and postcards – but they also need the high-end items. “These products are important even if they aren’t always paying for shelf space,” says Carol Ann Monk, from the Historic Sites Association of Newfoundland and Labrador.  “They may not be the biggest money makers, but they give the impression the store is doing its job.”

That “job” is the intangible benefit derived from expanding your store’s mandate beyond the narrow realm of generating revenue. “Stores that exist purely for retail are missing out on the benefits of aligning themselves to educational mission,” says Monk. “The happy store is one that marries education to retail,” adds Susan Dunlop. Paco Underhill writes, “if a store sets itself up to educate shoppers, a certain number of them will spend more than what is absolutely necessary.”

But what stops retail from achieving its potential is the practice of underestimating consumer needs.  Consumers want leadership. Instead, retailers are following consumer directions. Shoppers will naturally be drawn to the familiar and repelled by the unfamiliar.  This is the problem with polling customers, and making decisions based on their answers.  Similarly, ask customers what they want and they’ll tell you what they need right now—not what they might desire in the future.  Disney’s Michael Eisner has commented on “the stifling effects of listening too closely to customers.” In his view, “most audience or customer research is useless.   It may be helpful for fine tuning messages, but it is useless for deciding what to do next.”

If you make it, will they buy?
Liz Evans is the deputy director retailing enterprises at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. She says her shop would like to move gradually in the direction of the Met and develop more proprietary products. No doubt many other museums would like to do the same, but the urge to develop new products can get everyone off track fast.

Canadian museums may start out wanting to create their own product, but then back away. Although market size is often cited as a stumbling block, at the end of the day it all comes down to resources. Retailers say they’re too busy to be creative, too focused on making a profit.  The Toronto Zoo store is a $3-million effort run by three people and seasonal staff.  Once the season ends, time and resources are too tight for André Wattie to engage in searching, designing or branding.

“If someone gives you $100K to repair a cage or develop the brand, you know where the money is going,” he notes. Leslie Smith agrees. “I hesitate to encourage people to [develop products] themselves unless there are commercially viable products that people want,” she says.

To be fair, some Canadian museums already produce very popular merchandise. But CMA director John McAvity would like to see standards elevated. “Product development is important because it promotes understanding of our own society,” he says. “We can see, own, and appreciate Canadian icons.  Yet because we must look at retail as a business, it is difficult for just about any Canadian museum to act alone.”

McAvity says the CMA could one day play a role in developing a line of high-quality, original products inspired by Canadian collections and sold in participating museum shops as well as in upscale retailers. As a model, he might look at the 10 shops that make up the retail arm of Historic Sites Association of Newfoundland and Labrador. Each shop focuses on its particular historic site yet their uniform brand means that tourists going from place to place can recognize them as a common entity. Britain’s National Trust has also successfully applied this formula throughout the United Kingdom.

The Newfoundland and Labrador stores have another secret. When winter descends and most historic sites are closed, the chain keeps a couple of stores open in shopping malls so that – figuratively, at least – the lights stay on. They maintain the sites’ identity in front of shoppers, keeping the public’s connection to those sites alive.

Cultivating your clients
From the perspective of mounting an exhibit, museum professionals are attuned to distinctiveness and creating a captivating experience with an unrelenting focus on quality and style. Unfortunately, many have forgotten this is also important at the retail level.

Calvin White acknowledges that strategic discussions between Toronto Zoo curators and retail are, at present, not formalized. “It’s just one of those things we let slip,” he admits. Lynne DeCew, VP of Marketing and Sales at the Vancouver Aquarium, also admits getting her institution’s store to work at reinforcing the brand hasn’t been a priority. “We haven’t given it as much thought as we should to making the connection between the store and museum,” she says.

To Sue-Ann Ramsden, coordinator of the CMA’s annual shop conferences in Toronto and Edmonton, such comments are symptomatic. “There isn’t a willingness to see the store in a partnership light,” she notes. “Stores continue to fight for seats at the corporate table. The ones who do better have support from the top.”

Combining members from curatorial, exhibition design, marketing, membership, education, communication, and retail into a discussion forum allows planners to consider all facets of an exhibit, from its thesis to its target audience to promotion and retail opportunities. “Retail should be a full partner in terms of planning and exhibit team,” says Susan Dunlop. “The integrated model works wonderfully when given a chance.”

White admits lack of interaction could be a weakness at the Toronto Zoo and says he is willing to explore the notion of establishing a better process. “We might take curators on buying trips,” he suggests.  Exposing curators to retail education is an interesting concept that would help develop collaboration and mutual understanding and lead to strategies that promote working together.

Getting management and curators thinking about being market driven may not take much. When asked what led to curators’ “Eureka moment” at Fortress of Louisbourg – what got them thinking about marketing – Lillian Hamilton responds, “turning around the shop from being a money loser to being a money winner.”

Hamilton realized that improving how people interacted with her store’s environment would lead to dividends. This key point—adjusting to how customers wish to experience products—is something many stores miss. “Stores fail because they fail to acknowledge how human beings shop,” writes Paco Underhill.

To turn her retail operation around, Hamilton created a new store—one that made shopping easier and more pleasant. As a result, more items have been moving out the door. The new retail facility is located in a house that reflects Louisbourg’s unique character. Each room in the store has a theme connecting it to the museum’s visual identity, and Hamilton focuses on telling the story of the products the store stocks. She has also insisted that the brand maintain its integrity. For example, she continues to reject “Celtic” souvenirs, despite demand.

So how can your museum find a new way of looking at the promise and potential of museum retail?  One solution is to look for models outside the museum world where outsiders have created successful organizations. Consider how dissimilar organizations are reaching out to the public. In Trading Up: The New American Luxury, authors Michael Silverstein and Neil Fiske describe entrepreneurs who have successfully persuaded consumers to purchase more expensive products.  The golf and wine industries, once stagnant and seemingly closed to innovative thinking, looked like golden opportunities to outsiders such as Ely Callaway and Robert Mondavi.  Unfettered by conventional wisdom and without much research to support their gut instinct, Mondavi and Callaway assumed people would pay extra for a product if it made them look and feel good.  Even though they lacked proven models to follow, both found market openings. They never underestimated the customer’s willingness to move up to higher quality and taste.

Museums can create many opportunities to connect with their communities through retail. Loneliness, fear, stress, longing for peace, hope, optimism, eagerness to try new things: these are the things that are driving the spending habits of today’s new consumers. People are looking for goods that allow them to express their individuality and personal style. The museum store that offers meaning and community, gives people an emotional lift and endorses their values will not just ring up more sales. It will have customers who can articulate what makes the organization special and unique.

(Originally published in Muse (Canadian Museum Association), March-April 2004)

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