Skip to content

Take a Look Around: A customer journey analysis of the museum store

Category: Alliance Blog
Interior of a museum store with objects like woven baskets and museum t-shirts on sale.
By making a museum's store an integral part of the visitor experience, you can attract loyal advocates and generate new revenue for the organization, these marketing researchers argue. Here is their guide to evaluating your own store. Photo credit: Kaminski House Museum.

Today’s successful museum operators are finding new ways to provide visitors with an active, interactive learning experience that recognizes personalized learning, social experiences, evolving technologies, and customer service. This increased engagement should lead to patrons becoming loyal advocates, whose word of mouth has the best impact for converting others into the same.

An important part of this process is taking a close look at the museum store, which must be an integral part of the museum experience. The store should provide an outlet for value-added educational materials related to the museum’s themes, collection, and activities. When the museum store becomes an integral part of the visitor’s experience, the resultant sales will provide the organization with new revenues and more than pay for itself, rather than operating with the goal of simply covering its own costs (i.e., breaking even).

It was with this ambition that Robin Gabriel, Executive Director of the Kaminski House Museum in Georgetown, South Carolina, reached out to the Wall College of Business at Coastal Carolina University for assistance. Looking for ways to improve the museum store’s performance, Coastal Carolina researchers (including Michael Latta and Mark Mitchell) identified key areas to focus on, including a price-bundling program with other museums and an inventory of best practices that could be incorporated into the store. We believed that “a rising tide could lift all boats,” and a re-tooled museum store would be well-positioned for the expanded number of visitors.

To help AAM readers focused on enhancing visitor experience and the performance of their museum stores, we offer a museum store self-evaluation system to assist you. Use the following prompts to take stock of whether your store is supporting the museum’s overall experience.

Take a look around:

Is your store “A PART OF” or “APART FROM” the museum?

Have you secured partnerships with other attractions that serve similar visitors?

The most effective museum stores are well-integrated into the visitor experience. In such cases, the store is “A PART OF” the museum experience. In contrast, a store that is separated from its museum either geographically or in theme, content, or design may be perceived by visitors as “APART FROM” the rest of the institution. This separation will lessen the impact of the museum store and (presumably) lead to lower sales levels at the store.

While museums sometimes compete directly with each other, there is likely overlap among their patrons. For example, a visitor to a children’s museum will likely visit a science center as well. This cross-over in visitors should be a pillar of strength for small museums. For example, in Tampa, Florida three museum attractions (The Florida Aquarium, the Lowry Park Zoo, and the Museum of Science & Industry) have come together to offer the “The Tampa Trio,” with bundled pricing saving visitors 35 percent off admission to all three attractions. Cooperation serves them better than competition.

A similar price bundling program has been proposed for the Georgetown market that incorporates area museums, plantation homes and grounds, and land and sea tours. At the time of this writing, the proposal has not yet been implemented.

Take a look around

Are your visitors engaged with an active learning experience?

Do you understand your visitor’s motivation for visiting the museum and finding merchandise they may seek?

Some visitors have a high need for cognition (i.e., to think). They choose to spend their free time exploring history, pop culture, science, or the arts. These visitors will better remember their day at the museum when they have an active learning experience that includes the museum store. Make sure to stock things to stimulate their curiosity, like books and other publications.

Museum research typically considers four consumer segments to be served (and often simultaneously) by the museum store

  1. Tourists interested in local attractions
  2. Enthusiasts interested in a particular subject and willing to travel to a new location to connect with the subject
  3. Group travelers (including school groups)
  4. Volunteers and staff who are well-engaged with the museum

With targeted merchandising, museum store staff can provide distinctive value-added items for each market segment. For example, tourists may be more interested in a one-of-a-kind keepsake and the ability to tell the story of where they got it. Enthusiasts may be more interested in books and other materials on a favorite subject. A member of a school group may be an impulse buyer looking to spend the money their parents or guardians provided for the day. Staff and volunteers may be looking to purchase gift items that share their fondness of the museum with others.

Take a look around

Can store shoppers enter without paying an admission fee?

Have you considered off-site retailing for your store?

A key tactic for generating revenue is locating the store at both the entry and exit points. Doing so effectively makes the store part of the visitor welcome as well as the “thank you.” This positioning enhances store sales by:

  • Immediately building awareness of merchandise available
  • Capitalizing on the increased interest in the museum theme due to the visit

If your space does not allow the entry and exit points to coincide, separate entrance and exit points can still work well provided the museum store is visible during entry. For instance, at Ripley’s Aquarium of Myrtle Beach, the museum store is visible but not accessible as the visitor enters the museum, and then serves as the exit so the visitor passes through the merchandise.

Research by the Museum Store Association suggests 94 percent of museums maintain only an on-site store, with a growing number pursuing off-site or satellite locations. These off-site locations, such as a temporary kiosk in a shopping mall during the winter holiday season, broaden access to consumers beyond paid visitors while concurrently building awareness of the museum among the general public. You can also accomplish this by allowing customers to shop at the store without paying an admission fee.

Take a look around

How well do you connect to the multiple senses of shoppers?

What merchandise do you draw attention to?

Shopping is a multi-sensory experience. The goal is to engage as many senses as possible (sight, smell, touch, etc.). Set the mood with proper background music and soft lighting. Allow visitors to touch the merchandise. You can even incorporate taste by selling (and offering samples of) locally made products like candies and preserves.

Encouraging touch is important, especially because the store is generally the only area of a museum where it is allowed. Part of facilitating this is ensuring that retail space is sufficient to allow ease of movement by visitors. Too often, museum stores have limited space, and the desire to maximize sales per square foot can lead to an overcrowded shopping environment.

You should also consider what merchandise you draw attention to and how. For instance, it’s a good idea to point out new merchandise additions with a “What’s New” section, since consumers can lose interest when they believe there’s nothing new since their last visit. You should also emphasize merchandise related to popular or signature displays and to new or temporary on-loan exhibits, with at least one dedicated display unit placed so it is seen early by shoppers.

Take a look around

How well does your merchandise mix extend the visitor’s experience beyond the museum?

What do you offer that visitors cannot get elsewhere?

Do you host shopping events for supporters to better engage them in the business of the museum while giving them early access to unique merchandise?

A museum store’s merchandise mix can help to extend the visitor’s learning or provide a connection beyond the visit. To aid this, all merchandise should be consistent with the museum theme.

Museum store merchandise tends to fall into three categories:

  1. Reminder items such as postcards, inexpensive jewelry items, or branded clothing such as t-shirts, sweatshirts, and jackets
  2. Collectible items such as hard-to-find printed materials, artisan-quality jewelry, and keepsakes
  3. Interactive items such as puzzles and games

These merchandise categories serve different market segments. Reminder items allow buyers across the spectrum to remember their visits. Collectibles provide buyers with storytelling opportunities when asked about their origin. Interactive items at higher price points appeal to parents and grandparents, while lower-priced items can appeal directly to children.

To make your offerings unique, try focusing on local history and culture. For example, history-oriented museum stores along the Carolina coast might consider selling the hand-crafted sweetgrass baskets that have been made in the area for centuries. Taking this idea further and leasing dedicated space to artisans to display their works can provide a guaranteed revenue stream for the museum store.

Special events for supporters, like member shopping days, are a good idea for several reasons. They can give supporters access to special merchandise and promotional pricing. They can also be an effective time to conduct focus group research with supporters and get their input on new products and other strategic initiatives.

Take a look around

Have you taken advantage of special events that bring guests to the museum for unique experiences?

Have you explored renting the museum and grounds for corporate outings, weddings, and community events to bring new visitors to the museum?

Have you hosted guest lectures for the benefit of your supporters?

Special museum events, like the North Carolina Museum of History’s Halloween Safe Night where participants follow a trick-or-treat path through its exhibition The Story of North Carolina, bring in visitors to enjoy the museum under a different context. It’s a good idea to make the store merchandise available during these events at discounted prices. Hosting corporate retreats held in the surroundings of an art, history, or science museum can provide incremental facilities rental revenue, as well as new exposure to these guests as potential visitors and patrons. Today’s meeting attendees may be this weekend’s museum visitors. Historic structures, such as the Kaminski House, realize new revenue by hosting weddings and receptions on their grounds. Other museum programs, like relevant lectures and book signings, can stimulate new visits to the store and allow the sale of signed books.

An exterior shot of a historic home shaded by a large tree and overlooking an expansive lawn.
The Kaminski House Museum in Georgetown, South Carolina. Photo credit: Kaminski House Museum.

Take a look around

Have you achieved a balance in the cost of staffing your museum store?

Have you achieved a sense of community between museum and museum store staff and volunteers?

The size and scale of museums, and museum stores, varies widely. The operational reality is that most stores in smaller museums will not be profitable if staffed entirely by regular paid staff. Most commonly, small museums use volunteers or multi-tasking staff instead. But relying on multi-tasking can take necessary focus off the store while employees or volunteers juggle their other responsibilities. It is important to find a balance between using volunteers and regular staff in order to grow the store to its full potential.

It is also important that these multi-tasking roles do not get in the way of the museum visitor’s experience of the store. We’re all in the guest satisfaction business. A visitor does not know about any internal operating distinction between museum staff and museum store staff, and expects positive interactions regardless of the HR reporting lines of the organization (of which they are likely unaware). Likewise, divisions between store staff and other staff should be as limited and process-specific as possible. Be sure to separate necessary divisions (i.e., limiting access to the museum collection or conservation facility to certain staff members) from unnecessary ones.

As museum store leaders look to the future, they need to take a look around, to assess past and present marketing practices. They need to be honest in their self-appraisal and encourage staff to conduct a similar analysis to get a 360-degree assessment. The goal is to maximize the value of the museum store, to fulfill the stated organizational mission and meet revenue requirements. The museum store should be an integral part of the museum experience. If leaders are not there yet, there’s work to do.

About the authors:

Michael Latta is a Professor of Marketing at Coastal Carolina University teaching Advertising and Marketing Strategy in the undergraduate and MBA programs, as well as consulting with operating businesses on those issues. He is primarily an applied marketer focusing on real-world problems in business that range from positioning a golf course to promotion strategies for pharmaceuticals and medical devices, as well as sales in a retail shop in a small museum.

Mark Mitchell serves as Professor of Marketing at Coastal Carolina University. Over the years, Mark has conducted a number of research and class projects with community organizations, including the Kaminski House Museum in Georgetown, South Carolina. He teaches a variety of marketing classes, including current Retailing classes during this period of ever-changing consumer expectations, new technology solutions, and the creation of omni-channel marketing efforts.

Robin Gabriel is the Executive Director of the Kaminski House Museum in Georgetown, South Carolina, a public/private partnership museum owned by the City of Georgetown and managed by the non-profit Friends of the Kaminski House. She is passionate about historic house museums and connecting them to their communities and their missions. Ms. Gabriel is a member of the American Alliance of Museums, the Southeastern Museums Conference, and the South Carolina Federation of Museums and serves as a peer reviewer for the Museum Assessment Program and a grant reviewer for the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Skip over related stories to continue reading article

AAM Member-Only Content

AAM Members get exclusive access to premium digital content including:

  • Featured articles from Museum magazine
  • Access to more than 1,500 resource listings from the Resource Center
  • Tools, reports, and templates for equipping your work in museums
Log In

We're Sorry

Your current membership level does not allow you to access this content.

Upgrade Your Membership


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to Field Notes!

Packed with stories and insights for museum people, Field Notes is delivered to your inbox every Monday. Once you've completed the form below, confirm your subscription in the email sent to you.

If you are a current AAM member, please sign-up using the email address associated with your account.

Are you a museum professional?

Are you a current AAM member?

Success! Now check your email to confirm your subscription, and please add to your safe sender list.