Creating a Connection
Since 1936, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) has been a cultural destination committed to “enriching the lives of all.” The Richmond museum is state-supported but also privately endowed, Meisha Gourley, interim director of retail operations, shared. Guests enjoy the mix of free art collections as well as the variety of paid exhibits.
VFMA offers events, dining and a gift shop that “has the unique advantage of being connected to an incredible collection,” noted Gourley. “In the VMFA shop we try to extend the mission of the museum by offering products that not only remind a visitor of their time at the museum but that will continue to educate and enrich their life. That could be a book highlighting an exhibition or it could be a piece of handmade jewelry from a local artist. The connection between art and product has many avenues to explore.”
“We have a robust product development collection and it is always in the top three of categories we carry. Lately, our exhibition specific t-shirts have been a top seller,” she explained. Additionally, the gift shop offers items Gourley considers impulse buys, such as “fun pens/pencils, kitchy desk items, postcards/ notecards, and even fun jewelry.”
Store Manager Katie Carr works her display magic by combining a “story-based” approach with clean accessible product presentation. “Katie is excellent at finding a whimsical and novel way to make typical gift shop items really sing,” Gourley explained.
For special occasions and holidays, VFMA has had success with bundled gift offerings. “Over the years we have explored bundled items, either within our store or across departments, meaning partnering with our on site cafe/restaurant or our membership department to add additional incentives to special celebrations,” Gourley said.
Gourley sources merchandise primarily at in-person markets, such as MSA Forward, NY NOW and Atlanta Market.
Operational Changes Pandemic restrictions such as store capacity counts, directional entrances, acrylic barriers, and other such directives were implemented to ensure safety of guests and staff. “We have eased those restrictions but are still using acrylic barriers at the jewelry and register banks. Our sales team still has the option to stay masked,” she explained.
In-Store Customer Experience Customer service is an important component of the retail environment, as is creating a positive experience that resonates with visitors. “We have had success with approaching each interaction with a guest as an opportunity to create a first and last impression because a museum gift store is often the first and last place someone will stop,” she stated. “We try to meet people where they are and read how they want to be interacted with; for example, we always greet/welcome a guest, but if it is obvious that they would really like to have some solo shopping time, we tailor our re-approach to them.”
The retail team is well-informed on all the museum’s exhibitions, programs and menus that are available and it helps provide visitors with a positive customer experience. “As previously mentioned, we are often a first stop for visitors, so we see that interaction as a chance to make people feel comfortable making their way The gift shop extends the mission of VMFA through its product offerings. around the museum. Hopefully guests remember the hospitality we served and they return before leaving,” she shared.
Gourley detailed that the VFMA store has been “the best place to grow professionally.” Her previous experience with the corporate retail environment differed in terms of flexibility in sourcing and merchandising. She described that she enjoys selecting a product at market, displaying that product in the store, and watching customers’ reactions. For Gourley, the entire process — from start to finish — is a great experience.