AIM Success Guide: successful retailing for smaller museums

AIM Success Guide: successful retailing for smaller museums



John Prescott from Retail Matters shares how and why a good shop can enhance visitor experience.

Retailing is often seen as the easiest way to generate additional income for a museum but it is surprising how often the appearance of the shop and the stock that it carries actually detract from the quality of the museum's collections, its exhibitions and very obvious levels of curatorial care. A good shop has the ability to complement other facets of a museum's work while enhancing the visitors' enjoyment of their day. It is therefore vital that it demonstrates the same level of professionalism that is apparent in the rest of the museum.

This paper is not intended as a definitive guide to museum retailing but a way of pointing those who are new to retailing in the right direction. It has been written for smaller museums, although it will have a wider application. If nothing else, it should give them an insight into some of the complexities of retailing and to understand why it is sometimes necessary to seek professional advice.

Why have a shop?

If you are thinking about opening a shop or a sales point in your museum, or you already have one and are unsure about how you should develop it, the first thing you need to do is to decide why you actually want one.

The most common reasons are:

  • to provide an additional source of income
  • to provide an outlet for educational material relating to the museum's collection and activities
  • to contribute towards the visitors' enjoyment of the museum by providing a place for them to buy a souvenir of their visit

Most of the successful museum shops combine the last two and, as a result, satisfy the first by generating a substantial amount of additional income. If, however, it has been decided that the principal reason for having a shop in your museum is to sell subsidised educational literature, everyone connected with the museum should understand that the shop is unlikely to be profitable and will probably not live up to most visitors' expectations of a museum shop.

Regardless of what type of shop you decide to have, there are certain basic elements of good retail practice that need to be looked at if the enterprise is to be a success. These are:

1. Setting objectives

It is important to remember that if you have not agreed objectives for the shop before you begin you will have nothing against which you can subsequently measure its performance.

Regardless of whether your objectives include making a profit, it is essential that financial budgets are established at the outset and are compared with actual results on a regular basis.

2. Staffing

A shop in a small museum is unlikely to be profitable if it is run entirely by paid staff. The most efficient way to run a shop is therefore to staff it either with volunteers or with paid staff who work in it in addition to other duties.

Regardless of whether the staff are paid or unpaid, the golden rules for a successful shop are:

  • only one person can be responsible for the day to day running of the shop - the ordering, the maintenance of the stock control system and other records, the standard of display and the cleanliness of the stock and fittings
  • the responsible person could be either full-time or part-time but must actually work in the shop for part of their week and not merely run it from an office
  • small museums very rarely require more than one person to be in the shop/at the admissions desk at any one time. Two people are often less productive than one!
  • all staff, paid or unpaid, need to be trained in the tasks they are expected to undertake and standards should be set for acceptable levels of performance, e.g. tills should balance at the end of each day regardless of who is using them

3. Shop location

If you are forced to make a choice, it is generally better to place the shop at the end of the visitor route rather than at the beginning. As it is very unusual for a small museum to have a separate entrance and exit, the question of whether to site it at one or the other very rarely arises and the best solution is often forced upon you - to have it visible at the beginning of the route and have visitors pass through it at the end.

There are, however, three additional questions that need to be asked when siting a shop, particularly if one of your objectives is to generate income for the museum, and they are:

  • Is the shop visible from the outside? You may not be able to alter the structure of the building but, with a little thought, a shop can often present a very attractive introduction to a museum and, at the same time, let passers-by know of the shop's existence.
  • Is it well signposted? Even if it seems obvious to you that the museum has a shop, make sure it is well signposted.
  • Can customers use the shop easily and without charge if they do not wish to visit the museum?
  • Museum shops, even in very small museums, can attract a large number of regular customers, particularly at Christmas when people are looking for something 'different' to give as presents.

Download the guide to read on:
AIM Success Guide: successful retailing for smaller museums (PDF)

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Income Retail Revenue generation
Resource type: Guide/tools | Published: 2017