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Museum Retail

Braving sleet and snow, over 30 delegates - from as close as Oxford and as far as Glasgow - made their way to the new visitor centre at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History on the 14th of January to discuss museum shops.  Topics for the day included knowing and developing your business; top tips for developing your shop on a shoe string; best practice for forward planning; and sharing details of suppliers and which products have worked for individual museums, and which haven’t.

Knowing Your Business – Advice from the Oxford University Museum of Natural History and the Pitt Rivers Museum

The day kicked off with a presentation from Yvonne Cawkwell, Retail Manager at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History and the Pitt Rivers Museum.  She discussed knowing your business: business models for success, principles of successful merchandising and product design and development.

The group identified the four Ps of retail merchandising: the right product, at the right price, at the right place, at the right time.  Yvonne then discussed how to determine those Ps using “Weekly Sales, Stock, Income” reports.  Yvonne shared the template for the version of this report she uses, and explained how the report could be used to manage stock rotation, identify best sellers and prioritise product purchasing.  As an accepted and recognised industry tool these types of spread sheets can also be used as leverage when negotiating for greater investment in your organisation’s retail offer.

A copy of Yvonne’s Weekly Sales, Stock, Intake  spread sheet can be downloaded here.

Yvonne also spoke about cost effective methods of developing products linked to the museum’s unique selling points. She highlighted that due to digital developments it has become easier over the last few years to develop ranges with smaller quantities at competitive prices.  Suppliers also often have their own design teams that can assist organisations in developing their lines.

Yvonne demonstrated low cost and low quantity development through the packaged confectionery gift range at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.  Previously food lines had not been allowed for conservation reasons, and were introduced in late 2012 on the understanding the products were not meant for consumption within the building.  Yvonne worked with a supplier who provided both advice on the best-selling products and design expertise.  Within four months the lines have been repeated twice and now form part of the best sellers.  Individual fudge bars were particularly popular with children, and larger items were popular with tourists, often buying them as gifts.

Later in the morning delegates had a chance to visit both the Oxford University Museum of Natural History and the Pitt Rivers shops.  Delegates were encouraged to ask specific questions, and to share their own thoughts on what could be improved in both shops.

Yvonne shared that the best-selling lines at the Pitt Rivers are postcards, scarves and accessories, while at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History fossils and minerals lines are the key income generators.

Retail on a Shoestring - Chiltern Open Air Museum

After lunch Sue Shave, Director of the Chiltern Open Air Museum (COAM), provided the group with a case study of how COAM managed to transform their museum shop with only £6,000, enthusiastic volunteers and a lot of elbow grease.

Run by two very dedicated volunteers, when Sue arrived at the museum the shop was in much need of a makeover, with products hard to find and quality service difficult to deliver.  To begin the process Sue and her two volunteer shop managers secured some retail consultancy from a local expert to help develop plans and decide on optimum layout.

With plans in place COAM successfully secured a small grant of £4,300 from the Association of Independent Museums, which they supplemented with a £1,700 grant from the Chilterns Conservation Board. They also managed to secure a day of consultancy through the Renaissance Rapid Retail Consultancy to review their product ranges and give advice on display techniques and price points.

Working with their small capital and team of volunteers the museum was able to refit their shop, implement new display techniques and upgrade their products and price points.  They shifted their product offer, which had previously focused almost exclusively on children, and introduced more gift products for adults.  Some of their most successful new products have been British fossils and jewellery lines.

The museum has also had success with their goody bags for schools, and several delegates suggested that they schedule a visit to the shop into school trips to both encourage purchases and prevent shop staff being unexpectedly overwhelmed by large numbers of schools students.

COAM is now looking at additional ways to develop their retail offer.  One idea is to create more retail opportunities around the site, in particular linked with special events and exhibitions.  Another possibility is to sell unique items made on site using traditional method, for example products by the museum’s blacksmith.

Developing your Business – Ashmolean Museum

The final speaker of the day was Jeremy Ensor, Commercial Director at the Ashmolean Museum, who discussed his tips for maximising spend per visitor.

Jeremy began by explaining how – breaking the cardinal rule that attraction shops should be located at the exit – as part of the Ashmolean redevelopment the shop was moved to the lower ground floor near the café.  Despite this move the shop is more successful than ever, for which Jeremy credits the shop layout, lighting and staff.

Jeremy’s top tip for the best shop layout and feel was to use simple fixtures with good spotlighting: expensive products need to look expensive.

Jeremy then focussed on maximising spend per visitor, by both driving visitors to the museum into the shop, and encouraging those who visit the shop to purchase. 

To encourage museum visitors to enter the shop Jeremy suggested placing appropriate reminders about the shop around the museum, in bathrooms and lifts, but also in the galleries, for example using pictures of products and books relevant to that particular gallery collection.  Once customers are in the shop Jeremy stressed the importance of visual merchandising: lighting and displays should be used to make products look desirable.  Jeremy also suggested revisiting price points regularly, especially for best sellers, and see if they can be increased.

Jeremy discussed the important role that shop staff play in both the purchasing process and the visitor experience: the shop is often the last part of the visitor experience and will often be the last memory people have of their visit.  It’s important that staff make eye contact with customers when they arrive so that they feel welcome and willing to approach staff.  Jeremy suggested that good examples of customer service should be rewarded, that staff should be given the opportunity to see how other organisations do customer service and compare their own efforts, and that they should be given goals.   Jeremy often tells his staff at the Ashmolean that if they convince an additional 1% of visitors to the museum to make a purchase in the shop, then with current average spend the museum could raise an extra £85,000 per year. 

Jeremy suggested that as well as giving staff incentives to raise sales, it is important to give customers incentives to make a purchase while at the museum.  At the Ashmolean they thank their customers for supporting the museum, ensuring that they are aware that all revenue raised is not profit, it is invested in the museum.

Jeremy also shared is thoughts on E–Commerce, which he said still represented only a small % of Ashmolean sales, with onsite visits remaining key.  He suggested that online shops are good for attracting audiences who may not come to the museum, but that expectations of their turn over should be realistic.  He felt that for the Ashmolean the online shop needed to turn over £20,000 per year to justify its existence.

You can view the Ashmolean online shop here.

A successful “remote” shopping experience which Jeremy had used in the past was placing stories about particularly unique products in newspapers.  Jeremy recounted how the museum had once made messenger bags our of old exhibition signs.  The museum put out a press release about the product, and the following weekend there was a significant bump in sales.

The day ended with a visit to the Ashmolean shop where delegates could pepper several members of the Ashmolean commercial team with questions.

Delegates’ Top Tips

Over the course of the day the group made a list of some of their top tips for museum shops:

  • Know your sales, stock and income to plan your purchasing and identify your best sellers.
  • Focus on best sellers and look at ways of introducing medium and high price points for best-selling lines. 
  • Mark down and get rid of old stock and don’t invest in too many stock lines.
  • Do place lines on the counter to encourage impulse buys, but limit this to two lines at a time.
  • Develop products that play to your museum’s unique selling points; and utilise suppliers and their resources to develop bespoke products.
  • Use displays and lighting to make products look desirable and expensive.
  • Revisit price points regularly to ensure key products are bringing in maximum revenue.
  • If your shop is not your exit, it is important to remind visitors to visit the shop, use signage throughout the museum linking them to the collections on display.
  • Use your organisation’s press contacts to promote the shop, putting our press releases for unique products.
  • Remind visitors that by purchasing at the museum shop they are supporting the museum, perhaps include ‘thank you for supporting the museum’ on till receipts or signs around the shop.

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