Profitable Times Newsletter

Using Provenance Cards

"UBIT is your friend." I have used this mantra for years to help ease unnecessary concerns about the sometimes unclear and tangled regulations associated with Unrelated Business Income Tax. This article is not about UBIT itself, that information is available on the Museum Store Association website, but about how to leverage adherence to the rules and regulations into a pro-active selling tactic that will enhance revenue.

Most everyone agrees the use of provenance cards (aka, shelf-talkers) is a proven way to connect the products in the store to the mission and exhibits in your museum, thus taking a big step toward meeting UBIT requirements. Far beyond this technical step provenance cards can also drive sales by educating the visitor about product mission-related characteristics, providing a background story about the product or the artist and pro-actively explaining higher-priced and unusual products, and items such as handcrafted products, where the value may not be readily apparent.

Information that can be incorporated in the cards include:

  • Connection to the mission and/or exhibits of the museum
  • Artist background
  • Educational material that puts the product into perspective
  • Community connection such as history or being made locally
  • Description of materials especially if rare or unusual
  • Description of how a handmade product is crafted
  • 'Stories' about the product

Regardless of the purpose, how you execute the production and use of the card is important. Provenance cards should all be printed on the same colored card stock using the same fonts and museum or retail graphics. Generally, the only change from card to card should be the text and the size of the card required to accommodate the text and fit the size of the product. For example, most cards may be put in holders or on small easels and placed on the shelf next to a product, but a card for a piece of furniture may be larger and hung using ribbon threaded through a hole in the card.

An example of provenance card variations on the same theme is the three-tier signage recommendations we made for the Seminole Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum in Clewiston, Florida. Although the program has not yet been fully implemented, the provenance cards will highlight three levels of proprietary and handcrafted products each with a slight difference in complimentary card stock colors. The three levels are:

  • Seminole Made — Made by members of the Seminole Tribe of Florida using traditional methods and materials
  • Seminole Designed — Features traditional Seminole Tribe of Florida designs but are not made by members of the Tribe and/or traditional methods and materials were not used in its manufacture
  • Seminole Inspired — Reflective of the characteristics of traditional Seminole Tribe of Florida design but are not made by members of the Tribe and did not use traditional methods and materials

Other uses and advantages of a provenance card program include:

  • They can be a nice finishing touch by including less expensive provenance statements in the box or bag so the buyer or gift recipient gets artist or background information on the product. This is also an opportunity to provide more information than can be attractively printed on the provenance card itself.
  • The provenance cards and supplementary handouts can be used as a way to casually train paid and, perhaps especially important, volunteer staff. One training idea is to assemble a binder with plastic sleeves for all provenance material that can be read easily when convenient and on occasion used as a reference guide.
  • The cards also take the role of a silent, accurate and always available salesperson. While nothing compares to a staff person interacting with the customer by delivering product information, you don't always have enough staff available, they aren't always the 'A' team and they are sometimes difficult to get out from behind the cash-wrap.
  • If we assume that a significant percentage of the products that have provenance cards associated with them have a higher than average price point for your store, the card can add to a merchandising ambiance for these products that enhances their perceived value.
  • The Wisconsin Historical Society has started using QR codes as provenance cards that link to a web page that provides more in-depth information.

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