What Is A Museum Store?

September 25, 2017

By Julie Steiner 

One of the admonishments I heard when I was new to this field was that I should not refer to museum store products as “souvenirs.” Souvenirs, it was said, evoke cheap and poorly-made things, rather than the quality merchandise of world-class institutions. But there’s another way of thinking about that word, and that is as souvenir — simply the French word for “memory.” What better compliment to a product could there be, than to have it contain a person’s memories? Elizabeth Merritt, the head of the AAM’s “Center for the Future of Museums” pointed out at an MSA conference a few years ago that the human mind simply can’t store all the memories that we gather in our lives. And that’s the true purpose of museum store products: good products done right become externalized memory, souvenirs that hold our memories and recall our experiences.

One thing I know for sure (and that my work in museums reinforces every day) is that museum stores are an invaluable part of the experience and that retail products serve an important purpose and wield an incredible power: they carry our collections and exhibits out into the world beyond the walls of our institutions. Once the exhibits have traveled on, the educational programs are completed, and in those hours when even the galleries of our permanent collections are hushed and dark, visitors continue to savor their experiences at our institutions through the objects they purchased (or were given as gifts) from our stores.

Above all, a museum store is the place where guests select a suitable container to hold their memories of the day.

I believe souvenirs are a compliment: we only buy objects to hold those memories we most wish to reinforce. We buy to hold on to positive experiences. Shopping at an institution is a conscious effort on the part of the visitor to turn that specific positive experience into a long-term memory. Gifts for others selected at museum stores carry an additional purpose: they are physical evidence of having thought of a person while in that institution. It’s so much more than an object handed on: a museum store gift reflects a deep human need to share a meaningful experience with another person.

Creating and selecting the right products to represent our institutions and imprint the visitor experience in the mind of the visitor is our imperative. The visitor needs to connect their delight and wonder — their cherished day with family and friends – to the items we offer them. It means that quality of experience must match quality of product: no other memory will work. Our primary job as non-profit retailers is to provide the extension of that experience and help to carry that memory into the homes and lsteiner-julie-headshot-smives of our audiences.

Often, when I give tours of the museum store where I work, I gesture with a flourish and proclaim “This is where the magic happens!” I am half mocking, but behind the joke lies seriousness, because I do think that there’s great “magic” to wrapping up the intense experience of a museum visit in a concrete memento, and the magic that happens when a guest finds the perfect thing to carry out, just the right object for them that will connect their long-term memory back to this experience: this day that they have had in this museum, and this specific object that will help them maintain the emotions, thoughts, and connections created during their visit. Museum stores are where the magic of connection and memory happens.

Julie Steiner is the Director of Retail Operations for the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, PA and the President of the Museum Store Association Board of Directors.


When It Comes To MAP Pricing You Snooze You LOSE

September 18, 2017

By Mike Lovett

As a museum store operator, or as a merchandise maker or distributor, you know that the ease of online shopping is a double-edged sword. Sure, it’s convenient — but for business owners and operators, the underbelly of counterfeited products, price discrepancies, and showrooming can quickly replace the thrill of finding a sale with the disappointment of losing one. The main culprits are usually on Amazon or eBay, selling the same product that you are for less.

These retail giants hijack MAP (Minimum Advertised Price) pricing, leaving you with inventory that’s difficult to move because you’re selling at the actual price. Your overhead costs don’t allow cutting margins to compete. And if sales continue to decline, you’re less inclined to take buying risks that might differentiate you and pay off down the road.

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New Shoptalk Group: Buyer – Vendor Friendly Forum

August 14, 2017

By Kristen Daniels

I like to think of a successful sales transaction as a win, win, win, win situation. The first winner is the producer, the second is the wholesaler (who is sometimes also the producer), the third is the retail store, and the final winner is the store visitor, who purchases the product.  When everybody wins, everybody’s happy!

Because of our commitment to museum visitors and each other, MSA vendor and buyer members are in a unique position to help one another rack up wins.  Even though working well together takes time, effort, and communication, I was pleased by the willingness of so many members of this community to send in their questions, comments and advice when David Graveen (Popcorn Custom Products) and I asked for suggested topics we could cover in our MSA conference session in Pittsburgh on buyers and vendors working well together. It is clear that we all want to talk to each other and find ways to work together in a way that will help the wins become easier and more plentiful.

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Let’s Talk Product Development

August 7, 2017

By Michael Guajardo

Product development is soo easy! Right? Wrong. It is hard work! With the stakes so high, the goal is always to create a successful product. When I first got started, I had good intentions and a good amount of retail experience, but I had never created a product from start to finish. Fortunately, I’ve had my share of faux pas (doesn’t mistake sound great in French!) which have been great learning experiences. They would also make a great blog for another time (#PDfails.) So, let’s talk about product development.

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Time to Connect!

July 10, 2017

By Donna McNett

Recently, out of the clear blue, a vendor emailed me for MSA membership advice. Surprisingly, she actually found me through an MSA blog. She is an artist/craftsman and her work is beautiful — at least what I could tell from the photos she attached. Her sales have been successful but only with one particular museum store — and they have re-ordered from her three times within the last six weeks. The issue is…. she is having a very difficult time getting in the door with other museum stores and wanted to know if joining MSA would make a difference. Should she take the plunge and join?

Even though I am a vendor member of MSA, I’m still relatively new to all of this.  I could easily identify with the difficulty in getting museum store buyers to take a look at your products. You might have tremendous success with one buyer — which makes it hard to understand why you’re invisible to others. Pittsburgh was only my second MSA conference so I was scratching my head a bit as to what I might say to encourage her.  When I joined MSA I didn’t really know what to expect and was concerned whether my small company could justify all the expenses; not just the membership but the show booth plus all the travel expenses.

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What I Learned – and Remembered – in Pittsburgh ….

May 15, 2017

By David Duddy

When I imagined writing a blog post about Pittsburgh, I thought of all the great take-aways: from session topics and presentations, from side conversations and cocktail chat, from panel discussions and sharing groups.

At my museum, we are migrating our store web page to Shopify – a session targeting that was incredibly informative. I learned about the necessity for real leadership from the keynote speech with Mike Tougias. I led a discussion group and learned TONS (and made a useful connection —  and a pal!) about training guards as a part of the education program. I realized that we needed to start pre-selling admission tickets online (duh!) to speed things up at the front desk. I learned that I am WAY behind the curve when it comes to the whole world of Amazon – and I better get up to speed! The closing keynote with Louis Roden was a revved-up reminder of the vital need for VITALITY (see what I did there?) in performing the best customer service each day.

And don’t get me started about the potential for 4 new product development projects and the three new vendors I bought from. It is amazing the value that I experience at every conference – and I have been attending almost yearly since 1995.

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The Success of Power: A Case Study on a Successful Exhibition

March 27, 2017

By Michael Silverman

What does success look like for your museum? Is it setting and attaining a sales goal, increasing store traffic, selling out inventory, all of the above?

At the Oakland Museum of California, it looks like our fall exhibition, “All Power to the People: The Black Panthers at 50.”

The Black Panther Party was formed in Oakland in 1966 by Bobby Seale, who immediately recruited the charismatic, yet highly confrontational Huey Newton. Most often recognized by their black leather jackets and signature berets, the Panthers fought to put a voice to the struggle against oppression for all people, particularly afflicting people of color in inner city ghettos.

The institutional priorities for the Oakland Museum of California are to strike a balance between financial sustainability and social impact, and on all fronts the exhibition delivered. By the time the exhibition came to a close, the museum experienced record-setting attendance and unprecedented media coverage, and, in the store, single-day sales records were shattered on multiple occasions.

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MSA Vendors Are Superior

March 20, 2017

By Blue Anderson

MSA vendors are superior. I doubt I’ll get much pushback on that statement from this MSA-loving readership. But, there is nothing like a cold-call from a non-member rep to make you wish all of your vendors were MSA Superior.

An unknown, but seasoned, sales pro stopped by my store on her way to another account, afterward sending me an email saying she had the perfect garment lines for us and asking if I had time to see her in the afternoon. Being a decent buyer, I checked out her wares online, and although one company was pedestrian beachwear, her secondary line caught my eye: mid-priced, waterproof rainwear. “Hmm,” I thought, “I’m building a ’Survival’ store for a spring opening, and that may just fit the ticket.” I emailed her back and said, “Please stop by and I’ll take a look at the Mossy Tech merchandise.”

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How Special Events Can Enhance Your Museum Store

January 9, 2017

By Audrie Cuddy Ranon

To hold the title of Museum Store Manager, we must be extremely flexible and skilled at wearing many hats. I don’t mean as a fashion statement, but, rather, as a metaphor to explain that it is a highly specialized position with lots of moving parts.

And move we do! We are responsible for the general management of the store; we plan inventory; and usually, we are the skilled buyers, trendsetting visual merchandisers, keen product developers, PR and marketing gurus, POS system experts, policy and procedures enforcers, keepers of the schedules, providers of the best visitor experience, contributors to the museum’s revenue stream, and so on and so on. As I said, there are lots of moving parts, and it is up to us to make those parts move effortlessly.

Now, how can we possibly do all of this and attract attention to the store and spur sales?

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Fair Trade – A Way of Life


September 26, 2016

Many museum stores offer a selection of Fair Trade products and proudly display the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO) logo to communicate that the products are fairly traded. There is a ‘feel good’ factor associated with these items resulting in increased sales due to ‘emotional’ purchases – a direct response to the connection made between Fair Trade and quality merchandise. However, do you or your customers really know what it means for a company to be committed to Fair Trade practices? Knowledge of this commitment can do a world of good and at the same time, further increase your store sales.
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