Tired look is history in museum shops

Museum shops can be a central source of generating revenue. So it’s time to throw out the tack and start selling slick branded products, says Andy Gilgrist

‘Seen the dinosaur, now buy a mug’ was the traditional approach to museum shops.

The fact that last week Peter Leonard & Company won a Design Week award for its work at the Science Museum’s concourse – including the shop – proves that museums are now keen to invest in the best design for their retail operations.

Tilney Lumsden Shane, which last year redesigned the V&A’s shop, has looked into this issue. Director Marvin Shane’s new report on the subject, titled The Great Museums Challenge, makes no bones about how museums should be cashing in on retail design skills.

“There was a time when museums were happy for visitors to simply enjoy perusing the exhibits and absorbing culture as part of their leisure time activities,” says Shane. “Today, however, it is a very different story.” Visitors, argues Shane, must be converted into shoppers.

Peter Leonard & Company was in at the start of the new revolution in museum retailing with its first treatment of the Science Museum shop six years ago, says senior designer Jason West.

More are beginning to “see the light”, says West, especially as they convert from free entry to paid entry and reconfigure entrance areas. Now, he adds, “the high street is being brought in”.

Indeed, Shane argues for museums to look to the high street and to take on ideas such as building brand equities, giving value for money, creating unique propositions, and using packaging and point-of-sale design to their best advantage.

Merchandise, says Shane, is the most difficult area but also key to the whole success. In agreement is Marcello Minale, chairman of Minale Tattersfield & Partners.

Minale Tattersfield has been heavily involved in many aspects of the new Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds, due to open on 30 March, including designs for the shop and its merchandise and packaging.

Minale points to the Van Gogh and other national museums in Amsterdam as the epitome of good museum shop design. Unfortunately, British museums generally don’t come close to such focused and relevant retail areas, he says.

“Usually museum shops could be a massive economic success but unfortunately they are often a massive disappointment,” says Minale. “The biggest error is usually the quality of the merchandise, which can be quite poor and not even related to the museum itself. A committee of famous people decides ‘let’s have an umbrella, a mug, a T-shirt’ and they miss the unique selling proposition.”

Shane concurs: “A lot of museums sell similar products. Branded goods are better and make for a lot more credibility.”

Putting an object, say a vase copied from an actual artefact in a museum, in packaging which imbues it with authenticity helps to achieve a premium price.

Other lessons from the high street include being consistent with brands. The shop at the Museum of the Moving Image has, for example, just been redesigned by BDG/McColl. Sales figures from its first three weeks’ trading have not yet been released. But BDG/McColl designer Andy Bodily says it appears to be “doing very well”. However, one of the major problems the shop has is with products being left on-shelf with outdated or inconsistent branding. It would never happen in those areas of the high street that are on the ball, but for a cash-careful museum like MOMI there has been little option.

One museum considering its retail activity very carefully doesn’t even exist yet. But it’s a sign of the times, and of commercial nous, that the planned 10m National Centre for Popular Music in Sheffield is taking retailing opportunities very seriously.

“We are looking to generate our own merchandise such as exclusive CDs and CD-ROMs,” says development director Tim Strickland.

“The retail design and packaging are also vital. We want to make ourselves distinct from, and not be competing with, the Our Prices, Virgins and HMVs down the road.” There won’t be any mugs or extinct retail ideas in Sheffield then.

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