University of Oxford

Follow us

Commercial Enterprise: What's In Store?

1 February 16 -- emma.henderson_3627

On 22 January 2016 over 25 delegates from around the UK gathered at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford for the latest in the Oxford University Museums Partnership’s Commercial Enterprise series of events: What’s In Store?.  The day looked at how museum shops can create a unique identity which is commercially viable and supportive of their organisation’s culture and philosophy through a range of presentations and discussion.

The day began with a tour around the Ashmolean’s own shops allowing delegates to ask questions of Retail Operations Manager Katherine Merrony and Commercial Services Manager Declan McCarthy as they assessed the shops to see what they thought worked well and identified areas for improvement. In addition to the main shop, the Ashmolean also offers a dedicated exhibition retail space giving delegates a sneak peek at the museum’s offer for its upcoming Andy Warhol exhibition. This space is refitted for each exhibition leaving the team a very short window to prepare. The delegates had the chance to investigate this space while the shop was still being constructed. The tour was a great way for delegates to get to know one another while hearing about the ways the Ashmolean has developed its retail approach.

The first presentation of the day was from Richard Clare, Branch Manager for John Lewis Swindon.  This was the first time OUMP had invited speakers from outside the cultural sector and Rich’s presentation highlighted some of the lessons we can learn from the commercial sector. 

Rich focused on the idea of Retail Brilliance, drawing on key elements from John Lewis’ priorities of interaction with customers and the importance of investing in career development for staff –known within John Lewis as Partners as everyone who works for the company has a stake in the business. Rich emphasised the ways in which the customer journey has changed over time – what people buy and how they shop are important considerations for museum shops that want to increase their impact. He spoke about exploiting the space where technology and customers meet, and the importance of effective merchandising and display as well as targeting your products for your particular customers.

Rich’s main message was the importance of getting the basics right in terms of engaging with customers through customer service, visitor journey and the right products and merchandising, and motivating and developing staff, making the most of their varied talents.

“Interaction with staff is a Broadway Show not the Queen’s Speech, it needs to happen everyday, not once a year” Richard Clare, John Lewis

After lunch Lycia Lobo, the Ashmolean’s newly appointed Commercial Director, shared her experiences of rapid business improvement techniques. Her experience from both high street retail and more recently at the V&A Museum gave tangible examples of how fresh ideas can invigorate museum retail. 

Lycia followed on from Rich’s tips on customer engagement, encouraging delegates to think about how they interact with customers and using the collections and exhibitions as ways of developing positive relationships. She emphasised the need to have clear performance goals and ensuring that these goals and success against them are clearly and regularly communicated to all staff from senior managers to front line sales. She also had some suggestions for rapidly growing businesses, suggesting looking at the quiet times when the business is not performing and considering what value added services can be offered at these times to boost income.

Lycia’s talk also led into a discussion on how museums, which are not always in a position to reward staff financially or offer expensive training programmes, can still nurture and develop their teams. Lycia and Rich suggested looking at the other benefits that museums can offer, such as opportunities to work and develop skills and experience in other parts of the organisation.

“If you don’t evolve your business, your business will stand still” Lycia Lobo, Ashmolean Museum

Camay Chapman-Cameron shared her insights on museum retail drawing on her experience as Managing Director of Fitzwilliam Museum Enterprises Ltd., a not-for-profit subsidiary of Cambridge University. Camay gave a case study based on opening the museums’  first High Street store in winter 2012, offering a product mix from all eight of the University of Cambridge Museums and aimed not just at retail success, but also increasing awareness and visitation to the museums. Camay talked about the unique challenges a high street store faces and the process the team went through in understanding their customers and developing the right products for them.

Camay’s main message was that the High Street has a very different clientele from the museum shop with different interests and product demands.

“You can’t just pick up your museum shop and move it to the High Street” Camay Chapman-Cameron, University of Cambridge Museums

To end the day, Rachel Davies presented a case study around the challenges of developing a retail offer from scratch for Compton Verney at a time when the gallery opened and the brand was unknown. After 10 years working in the private sector for organisations such as The Observer Newspaper and Walt Disney, Rachel decided to return to the arts and joined Tate Modern before taking up her current position as Deputy Director of Compton Verney. Discussing the development of Compton Verney’s retail offer, Rachel shared teething challenges around selecting the right objects from the collections to create desirable products, balancing cost effectiveness with demand requirements in terms of product runs, and developing ‘branded’ products for a site without a well-known and established brand. Sharing her lessons learned, Rachel underlined the message of Rich and Lycia that motivated staff were fundamental to success and emphasised the importance of the connection between the products in the shop and the art in the galleries, ensuring a strong link between the two.  Placing the work of contemporary artists shown in the exhibitions in the shop enhanced the experience for the visitor and spend per head.  Creating displays outside the shop space which mixed exhibition themes and retail product increased  interest  and footfall, blurring the ‘sacrosanct’ line between gallery and retail spaces. Referring to the problem of turning over products quickly at sites like Compton Verney which attract a high level of repeat visits through their exhibition and membership programmes, Rachel talked about developing relationships with small, local crafts people who were comfortable developing bespoke product in small runs thus giving the shop a uniqueness and freshness vital to its success. 

“We are increasingly blurring the lines between retail and art, thus creating a more unified, holistic experience for the visitor and increasing the authenticity of our merchandise” Rachel Davies, Compton Verney

After a full day of case studies and discussion we hope all the delegates enjoyed the day as much as we did. Keep an eye on our events page for upcoming commercial events.

Sign up for our newsletter

Keep in touch

Follow us on Twitter

Email us