E-Commerce Success for Museums

Written by | March 13, 2017 | Posted in Museums

E-commerce sales have more than tripled over the past 10 years and are growing at a much faster rate than brick and mortar sales according to the US Census Bureau. Many museums have missed out on this growth, however, with some seeing as little as 2-3% of their total sales online. At Museum Connections 2017, we had the pleasure of learning how Laura Wright at the Tate Modern has been able to increase its percentage of online sales to an impressive 10%. We want to share with you some of the techniques employed by museums like the Tate Modern and our recommendations for what you can do to boost your online sales.

The Trouble with Selling Online for Museums

Why do museum goers shop in brick-and-mortar museum stores? It’s because they are at “peak inspiration”, the moment right after touring an exhibition which creates a desire to make a purchase. On-premise museum shops are designed and expertly placed to help visitors fulfill the need to cherish the memory of their visit, to beautify their environment, to share the experience with loved ones, or to further their own or their children’s education.

As museum goers get further away from peak inspiration, for instance when they return home and get back into their daily routines, that drive to make a purchase diminishes and is a tough hurdle for museums to overcome.

The Promise of Museum E-Commerce

When a museum is successful at boosting online sales, not only does their bottom-line improve, but they increase their reach by selling to a larger and more diverse audience and remain engaged with their community by increasing the number of repeat customers. Reach and community engagement are often core tenants of many museum’s missions. So how can museum stores be successful online?

Re-create that Inspiration Moment Online

First, nothing kills inspiration and the desire to make a purchase faster than an old and tired looking website and online shop. Beautiful photography, video, clean design and appropriately placed tie-ins to your shop can all boost sales. Try to recreate the same emotional drivers on the web that your visitors would feel inside your museum. Don’t discount the effect your website has on your visitor’s inspiration peak. If you have a compelling and inspiring site, then picking the right products to sell online is the next key item to focus on.

Pick the Right Products

This seems obvious, but many museums recreate their physical stores online, complete with all of the same products, instead of being selective. Keep the following criteria in mind when selecting products for e-commerce:

What products have the potential to make your museum the most money? Balance the revenue potential of a product with the expense of selling it online. Consider how difficult it will be to photograph and add a product to your site. Good photography (and increasingly videography) is expensive, but crucial for e-commerce. Will the product be difficult to handle and ship? Will it break or need to be returned? Can it be purchased elsewhere online? A museum isn’t going to be able to compete with Amazon, so avoid selling everything.

Identify products that you can sell better online than in your physical museum store as these can be great candidates for a successful e-commerce strategy. Here’s an example: the Tate has a large selection of custom prints available online. While it can be difficult to show everything that’s available in the confines of a physical museum store, those constraints don’t apply online and you can do things online that aren’t possible in a physical store. The Tate uses software on its e-commerce site to let shoppers select the type of material, size of the print, and to see how the print would look in different rooms of their house, even with various wall colors.

Another category of products that sell well online are limited editions. Partner with artists to create these exclusive products that can’t be found anywhere else. This can be a successful way to entice new and repeat purchases from shoppers that are following a particular artist.

Invest in Data and a Modern E-Commerce Platform

Actionable data is key to improving sales both in your physical store and online. Are you currently able to answer questions along the lines of:

  1. Who is attending certain exhibitions?
  2. Are they purchasing items in my store and what are they purchasing?
  3. Have they purchased items in the past?
  4. Are they interested in certain themes, topics, styles, or artists?

If you aren’t able to answer those questions, we would encourage you to start collecting this data (there are surprisingly easy and unobtrusive ways to do so) since it will drive your e-commerce sales. Here are two quick examples of how the data can be used: remind an exhibition’s attendees that they can purchase related-items from your online store and tie this into an upcoming event or holiday. Do you have new limited editions available from a specific artist? Let your aficionados know right away with a campaign reminding them of what first inspired them. These two examples are just scratching the surface in terms of what you can do!

A modern e-commerce platform will generate even more actionable data. You’ll be able to analyze product bundling, shopping cart abandonment, promotion effects, etc. and compare that data to your physical store data. Analyzing this data will take time and staffing, which is another investment to make but one that can easily be tied to ROI.

Remind Visitors of your Shop’s Purpose

Do the profits from your shop further your museum’s mission? We’ve seen traditional museum shops place their mission statements proudly on the wall behind the checkout area, so why not do the same thing online? We recommend clearly stating your shop’s mission within your e-commerce pages. This unique value proposition will resonate with certain customer groups and sets museums apart from other retailers.

While selling online can be challenging for museums, remember that a successful e-commerce strategy can help fund other areas of your museum all while increasing your reach and keeping you engaged with your community. We hope you’ve enjoyed these e-commerce tips. Do you have other tips to share or have you run into difficulties selling online? Feel free to reach out to us or keep the discussion going on Twitter.

Adam King, Strategist & Co-Founder
Adam built his first website over 20 years ago and spent many years in higher-ed as an instructional designer and technologist developing online courses and implementing large IT systems. Adam enjoys using his background to help cultural institutions solve problems and further their missions.