Why museums are investing in retail

9 Oct 2018

Typically a place where you might buy a dinosaur pencil at the end of a visit, museum shops don’t exactly have a reputation for being the most inspiring of retail spaces. However, museum shops have undergone a major transformation over recent years, with many now featuring the same level of spontaneity as a one-off exhibition, thanks to eye-catching layouts and innovative product ranges. We take a look at how museums have been evolving the retail experience, bringing you five lessons that you can apply to your own business.

Make sure your store stands out


With 2.3 million objects spread across 145 galleries, there’s plenty of distractions at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. Thankfully, the V&A, which has had a shop inside since 1863, has a smart approach in ensuring it entices people through its shop doors, thanks to a striking design and promotion of bold new works by some of the world’s brightest designers.

The shop benefitted from a radical redesign in 2017, 11 years after the last redevelopment, with the aim of drawing the attention of the 4.4 million visitors who pass through the museum’s doors each year. Shelves and sales counters are now illuminated by suspended glass panels, while 3D-printed, engraved ceramic tiles and laser-cut pillars made of steel combine to give a surprising yet contemporary feel.

The bold new design has paid off; over the last year, the museum increased its retail revenue by 17%. This proves that if you create a distinctive visual identity for a physical store, it will help it stand out among consumers.

Have an artistic approach to displaying products

©Lafayette Anticipations

Is it a shop, a gallery or a concept store? The Lafayette Anticipations Foundation bypassed the rules of art and retail completely to open a “novelty shop”. This hybrid store, dedicated to contemporary design and creation, features limited editions by the artists in residence as well as art books. It does this all in a genuinely original way with each item featuring messaging that questions the way we produce and buy things in the world, aiming to make consumers think as they buy.

This ambition to break away from the traditional retail rules includes plinths made of plaster and recycled paper, which serve as pedestals for items exposed in full light. And emptiness is welcome too; this allows visitors to focus on the unexpected and unusual selection of products which take centre stage – positioned like true works of art.

This innovative approach has helped the store gain extensive attention from the press since the foundation opened its doors back in the spring of 2017. It also serves as proof that having an artistic, left-field approach to retailing can really pay off. Having an empty shop with only a few items isn’t necessarily a negative, but can instead allow consumers to really connect emotionally with the few items you do wish to show them.

Think beyond souvenirs


Since its last redevelopment in 2016, New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) Design Store has stood out due to its commitment to only stocking innovative items. Rather than mugs and pens, visitors can buy a glass vase by Alvar Aalto, a leather and wooden lounge chair imagined by Charles and Ray Eames, or a pair of Nike shoes designed by Virgil Abloh.

Items are selected based on eight filters, such as the innovative nature of the product and its educational value, and MoMA’s curatorial team advises the shop’s buyers during the selection process. With an annual turnover of $44m, this unusual approach to museum retailing has undoubtedly been successful, proving you can make a gift shop a real destination if you’re willing to think outside the box.

Sell your expertise, not just products

Palais de Tokyo

The Palais de Tokyo, which describes itself as an “anti-museum”, has a similarly bold idea for its gift shop. It doubles as a library dedicated to the visual arts, filled with independent magazines, artist manifestos and books. This selection is curated and managed by Walther König and Parisian arts publisher Cahiers d’Arts, two giants of art publishing.

Thanks to this innovative range of products, when someone buys something they are genuinely owning a unique piece of art history opposed to just buying tired souvenirs. The Palais de Tokyo is proof that providing shoppers with your expertise and curation, rather than just providing a predictable, basic experience, is a great way of creating a destination shop.

Have the spontaneity of an exhibition


Museums are aware that permanent collections are not enough to maintain visitors’ interest all year-round. Subsequently, to ensure maximum attendance, they now provide a calendar filled with exciting, temporary exhibitions and events. And MuCEM, a museum in Marseille dedicated to European and Mediterranean civilisations, has applied this approach to their shop, which changes its ranges based on the seasons.

It’s imperative to surprise your consumers to ensure they keep coming back and to stop things becoming dry. Opening a pop-up shop for just a few months, offering limited editions or taking advantage of your space to host one-off events, is a great way of creating excitement and ultimately, loyalty.