Faces from the Field: National Building Museum
By Laura Lott
I had the unique opportunity to visit Michael Higdon at the National Building Museum in November 2015 and work with his staff to remerchandise the Museum Shop for the holiday season. Museum retail is big business in Washington, DC among tourists and locals alike. The National Building Museum is a pillar within this community of institutions that have learned to masterfully extend their museum experience into their retail operations and, consequently, into the homes of visitors from around the world.
Watching Michael transform the space from business as usual into a wing of Santa’s Workshop—while maintaining a seamless transition within the surrounding museum—left me humbled by the skill and creativity that need to be paired with a keen business sense in the making of a successful retail operation.
Lott joins National Building Museum staff in trimming the tree for the holidays.
After trimming the tree and store in record time (three hours!), Michael and I sat down to talk shop about some of the challenges and opportunities he’s seen in museum retail.
You can’t talk about retail in any context without recognizing the $340 billion e-commerce e-lephant in the room. At a rate of 10–15 percent per year, e-commerce only continues to increase its share of the retail market as brick and mortar retailers (like most museum stores) carefully maneuver their way around its double-edged sword of competition and opportunity.
Michael introduced me to showrooming, the practice of examining products in brick and mortar stores before purchasing them online at a sometimes lower price. And where many expected e-commerce to be a boon for retailers everywhere, it hasn't proven to be a profitable venture for many museum retailers. Online sales at the National Building Museum only accounts for less than 2 percent of the overall retail sales.
With the growth of e-commerce Michael has also seen an evolving Point of Sale environment with systems touting powerful consumer analytics and the ability to integrate with other asset and data management systems throughout the museum. The proliferation of options doesn’t make it easy to narrow down one that will best serve the store and the museum and raises more questions than answers in retail operations across the field regarding staffing, support, and security. It’s a weighty decision and long-term investment that Michael wants to be sure will contribute to the shop’s future growth and sustainability as a key player in the museum’s daily operations.
Michael made it clear that partnership is central to the success and sustainability of the National Building Museum and its museum shop. I’m hard-pressed to think how any organization can achieve its mission without aggressive partnership in this day and age. Museum retail operations around the country have been great to embrace this spirit of economic collaboration through events like Strathmore's Museum Shop Around, which "turns holiday gift giving into an art form" by bringing together staff and wares from 18 area museums and cultural shops (Michael’s team was preparing to leave for this at 5 am the next morning!).
But museum stores also have a special opportunity for internal partnership, one of equal consequence for the success and mission alignment of the retail operation and museum alike. Michael works closely with program and curatorial staff to make sure the shop’s inventory reflects and extends the museum’s blockbuster exhibitions. He also noted that this is somewhat of a chicken-and-egg relationship in that some exhibitions can be inspired by connections drawn between shop merchandise and the museum collections.
Mission and the Marketplace
Museum retailers throughout the field are constantly challenged to balance mission with revenue-generation. It takes skill and creativity to maintain a museum store identity that is balanced and consistent with the museum and its mission. Michael explained that, while the National Building Museum is not a children’s museum, toys sell. Books, toys, and home décor each account for 20-30 percent of the museum shop’s total sales, but all inventory is woven thematically back to the mission of the museum.
Bringing it Home
I enjoyed spending the better part of a day taking a closer look at life behind counter. It prepared me to deliver the Museum Store Association’s keynote in Atlanta a few months later, where I heard many more stories that speak to the critical role pragmatism and partnership play in the financial stability of our field.
Thanks to Michael and his amazing team, I don’t think I’ll ever look at museum stores the same again. As if I needed another excuse to visit these wonderful treasure troves on the museum journey, I now find myself stopping in for a little inspiration and paying attention to many of the finer details, many of which don’t have a price tag.
What do you think? Share your successes, challenges, and questions related to museum stores on the Museum Junction thread!