Profitable Times Newsletter

The Art and Science of Museum Store Retailing

Surveys consistently tell us the museum store is an integral part of the visitor's experience in a museum. This finding should provide the impetus for museums to enhance the museum visit, extend continuing education for visitors of all types and increase revenue by providing an attractive retail presence. In addition, the store staff often has the most interaction with the visitor and the store is frequently part of the last and lasting impression of the museum.

Museum retailing is a combination of art and science. The art is present in subjective product selection decisions, the display and merchandising of products and the layout and design of the store. These are the factors that most directly affect the visitor/customer. The science is represented by numbers, primarily generated by the reaction of the visitor/customer to the retail presence. These include financial calculations and the measurement and evaluation of individual product and category sales. Let's look at each of these factors separately and in some detail to see how they affect the modern museum visitor and museum store customer.


Continuing Education

The visitor is learning, experiencing and experimenting while they visit the museum, but that process usually comes to an abrupt halt when they leave. If, before they leave the museum they stop in the store, we have the opportunity to provide books and other products that can extend the educational experience, in both time and distance, far beyond the museum visit. Surely, this meets one of the most important goals of every museum.

To take full advantage of this opportunity and avoid UBIT problems, the store product mix should relate directly to the mission and exhibits of the museum. The added advantage of this focus is that it will distinguish the museum store from generic gift shops and help to develop the store into a retail destination.

While some museum administrators may disagree with the prominence of a few of product categories below, the museum store customer has voted with their pocketbooks making these the categories that best connect with the visitor.

Individual museums can tailor their product selections anyway they wish, but must realize the decisions have financial impact. For example, a museum may only want to sell books. That's fine. But that decision should be made with the full realization that it will probably limit revenue potential and for sure affect profitability.


Books are the heart of a museum store. It is the category that gives specific and implied seriousness to all the product selection. The book selection often makes the difference between a museum store and a gift shop. In addition, a strong book selection helps support the sale of higher-priced, higher-margin products by giving the customer the confidence that the higher price is supported by well educated buying decisions.

A word of warning, museums frequently print too many copies of self-published catalogs and books of little popular appeal. If you expect to sell these publications through the store, invite the store manager to comment on the probable public appeal of the publication and the quantity that can be reasonably expected to be sold through the store.


Simply put, mission-related jewelry is a high margin (helping to balance the often low margin for books), very popular product category with a wide range of retail prices that can generate significant revenue out of a small space. Jewelry appeals to buyers of all ages for personal and gift purchases.

Paper Products (excluding books)

Paper products from post cards and posters to historic reproductions and journals are popular because they are relatively inexpensive and conveniently transported. In addition, paper products can be easily customized to reflect the museum brand.


T-shirts, sweatshirts, polo's, hats and higher-priced logo jackets and other apparel are very popular. The reaction to t-shirts and sweatshirts should not be, "I don't want t-shirts in my museum," it should be, "I only want t-shirts with great, relevant graphics in the museum store."

Children's Products and Activity Kits

The quantity of children's related products will vary with the level of visitation by children, but two finer points are also important. First, even if the visitation is adult oriented, parents and especially grandparents love to buy good quality children's products for their children and grandchildren. Second, if children are in the visitor mix in any way, I don't think there is a better product category than hands-on activity kits for meeting the continuing education goals of any museum. Whether it's beading kits based on First People designs, science kits or an ant farm, it goes to the core of children learning.

There are, of course, many other product categories including two and three-dimensional original and reproduction art, crafts, audio/visuals and, depending on the mission of the institution, science kits, gardening supplies, etc., but the above represents the core of most museum store revenue.

Proprietary Product

Within all product categories there is the opportunity to produce proprietary product that is unique to the institution. Some, like paper products and 'name drops' on apparel and novelty items are easy and inexpensive. Others, like the three-dimensional reproductions of items from the collection are considerably more difficult and expensive. All these efforts however, are warmly received by the customer, tie the product to the mission of the institution and mitigate UBIT problems.

Interaction with the Visitor

Along with docents and historical interpreters, the store staff often has the most interaction with the visitor. This may range from questions unrelated to the museum about local restaurants and attractions, to those about products that complement areas of interest in the museum. Regardless of the nature of the interaction, the store staff becomes part of the human face of the museum and part of the last and lasting impression of the museum.

For this reason the staff must be well trained in customer service, knowledgeable about exhibits and products, appropriately dressed and prominently identified as store staff with more visitor-friendly nametags than routine security badges.


Store Evaluation

Although there are many financial formulas that can be used to evaluate the performance of a museum store, the most basic and revealing may be the following. Unfortunately, there is little standardization in how visitors are counted, store size measured, and accounting applied to revenue and expenses, so inter-museum comparisons are difficult and can be misleading. This does not however, preclude museums from keeping track of these measurements for intra-institution measurement and evaluation.

Capture Rate
(Percentage of visitors making a retail purchase)

Number of Retail Transactions

Number of Visitors

The location of the store within the institution, along with the 'look and feel' of the space and the product selection have the greatest impact.

Dollars Per Visitor

Net Retail Sales

Number of Visitors

The key to the value of this measurement is the consistency of the methodology applied to visitor counts.

Dollars Per Customer

Net Retail Sales

Number of Retail Transactions

This may be the most revealing of all because it is the measurement based on those visitors who have crossed the threshold into the store and are reacting to the retail environment regardless of where the store is located or how they were counted.

Gross Sales and Dollars per Square Foot

Gross sales and dollars per square foot are traditional retail measurements but are unreliable for inter-store comparative purposes for all the reasons noted above.

Inventory Turnover

Cost of Goods Sold

Average Inventory

Turnover is the measurement of the efficient use of inventory dollars. The higher the turnover (within reason) the more frequently the same inventory dollars are reused throughout the year. The lower the turnover, the higher the average dollars invested in inventory. For cash-strapped museums this is an important fiscal measurement.

Open to Buy (OTB)

An OTB is a merchandise buying plan and the single most important financial tool because it helps to manage inventory, which is the biggest expense category in any retail environment. All stores, regardless of size, should consistently use an OTB — period! When I have my consultant's hat on and I'm evaluating store performance, an inappropriate inventory level is the most frequently encountered and devastating financial problem.

In summary, the museum store can be a multiple winning situation for the museum and its visitors. A good retail presence enhances the image of the museum, furthers continuing education, improves visitor satisfaction and increases discretionary revenue for the museum.

See the complete list of Profitable Times™ Newsletters.


© 2020 Andoniadis Retail Services. All rights reserved.
Read our privacy policy. | Site Map


About Us
Client Lists
Information Center by Topic
Workshops & Seminars
Event Schedule
Store Photo Gallery
Museum-Related Links
Request Brochures
Contact Us