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Is e-commerce the future for museum shops?

19 October 2020

It is almost impossible to imagine museums without their shops. Visitors fully expect to be funnelled through a gift shop after exiting an exhibition – usually leaving with a pack of postcards, at the least. With museums now facing vast reductions in footfall, and rushing to digitise their offerings, the question arises whether the familiar, and often welcome, experience of the bricks-and-mortar shop can be successfully replicated online.

The pandemic has turned the recent growth of e-commerce into a boom, with the IMRG, the UK’s online retail association, reporting a 28.2 per cent rise in overall UK online retail sales from March to April and a 12-year high in May. Growth continued even as high streets reopened in June, suggesting that, for some sectors, a virtual presence now matters as much as a physical one.

Many major museums have been developing online retail arms for some time, with the National Gallery launching its online shop in 2000 and Tate following a decade later, but others are now forced to play catch-up. Low budgets and lack of expertise no longer hold retail businesses back thanks to the availability of plug-ins such as Shopify, although this technological streamlining can hardly make up for the leap in customers’ expectations generated by the resources of global giants.

‘Our site should be as good as sector leaders like Amazon in terms of product information and navigation,’ says Julie Molloy, managing director of National Gallery Company Ltd. This calls for considerable investment in professional photography, marketing content and delivery services, which must also match the quality of the collections they represent. Managing an e-commerce platform can consequently be demanding for small museum shop teams, in exchange for what may be comparatively meagre returns. Almost two decades after its launch, the National Gallery’s online shop accounted for just eight per cent of its overall retail turnover in 2019.

One way of mitigating the risk involved in e-commerce may be to work with another platform: the cultural education charity Art UK, for instance, hosts some 64 institutions of various sizes on its online shop, providing shared infrastructure to facilitate online sales of prints, image licences and merchandise. Camilla Stewart, head of commercial programmes, warns that e-commerce can ‘seem like a quick-win solution, but is a flooded marketplace and an offer needs to rise heads and shoulders above the rest to do significant sales’. (Apollo editor Thomas Marks is a trustee of Art UK.)

Part of the challenge is that, whereas in-store purchases often relate directly to what the buyer has just seen at the museum, online sales require a distinctive digital marketing strategy. The museums I spoke to for this article primarily target existing audiences via newsletters and social-media posts. Many find emphasising their particular cultural niche useful for performing well in organic search rankings, such as when a buyer searches for products relating to a particular artist or movement. Sir John Soane’s Museum’s exclusive range of architectural models, for example, has been specifically tailored to an international audience with specialist interests. Demographically there may be little difference in audiences on and offline, but internet buyers are able to make more considered – and large-scale – purchases, and trust museums to offer high-quality products.

Few institutions were well prepared when lockdown started, however, for a public unable to travel, locked out of its favourite museums and seeking replacement entertainment at home. With staff furloughed and sites closed, only those able to fulfill orders through a third party could hope to profit, further widening the gap between smaller and larger businesses. The National Gallery, whose partner continued operating through lockdown, has observed a surge in orders of arts-and-crafts products and jigsaws, reporting, over the four months from April to July, an overall increase in online sales of 52 per cent on the same period last year.

Museum shops selling through Art UK have been buoyed almost entirely by print sales, which aren’t handled in-house but by an external supplier. June was still the Art UK shop’s most successful month since its launch in 2016, with a 145 per cent increase in sales from June 2019. In a timely move, it has just launched a print-on-demand service for homeware and accessories, offering a low-risk model for the many museums now expressing an interest in joining the shop. (Art UK does not take a share of sales revenue; its print supplier takes a cut of print sales.)

The need for alternative revenue streams during a prolonged period of reduced footfall may well push more museums to sell online. But Emma Roberts, a specialist in e-commerce and merchandising for Arts Council England’s Digital Culture Network, advises against rushing in without a clear strategy. Museums should start small and build the shop in phases, placing a big emphasis on digital marketing. ‘You can have a beautiful shop but if you aren’t telling people about it, it’s just sitting there,’ she says.

The Soane reopened its online shop in June with an Instagram competition and campaign encouraging people to ‘recreate the Soane at home’ with Bank of England earrings and a Hogarth tea towel, among other items. Director of commercial and operations, Rebecca Hossain, says ‘it was difficult to source new products, but we’ve already got beautiful products and decided to tell people about them in new ways’. Some institutions have responded fast to the times, with new lines of face coverings and, in Tate’s case, branded hand sanitiser. Exhibition catalogues, always big sellers, may prove particularly important for international reach, with several museums already reporting a keen interest from those unable to see shows in person.

Online shops won’t recover the grave losses of income that museums are suffering from reduced visitor numbers – and, as widely reported, many museums’ commercial arms have made, or are considering, redundancies. But against a backdrop of significant uncertainty, e-commerce may offer museums a now rare prospect of progress. ‘None of us know how the business model on site is going to pan out,’ Molloy says of the National Gallery, ‘so we have to be agile and put the investment in those areas where we think we’re going to get growth.’

From the September 2020 issue of Apollo. Preview the current issue and subscribe here.

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