Use products from the past to create profits for the future
By Abby Heugel, Managing Editor
The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum Store in Springfield, Ill., not only preserves history, it makes history. By enabling millions of visitors from around the world to experience the Lincoln story in its entirety, it is arming the next generation with a passion for history through both the exhibits and the products found in the store.
“We see thousands of school-age children each day,” said Amy Miller, store director. “The museum opens them up to a world of history they may not get anywhere else. We keep a section of children’s books and toys from the time period so they can take a piece of history home with them.”
When they first opened in 2005, the store only sold apparel that was dark navy or red with a simple Lincoln signature. Miller said they’ve learned that visitors are more open-minded, so they slowly moved toward more bright colors and modern designs on apparel, with much better sales and a larger share of business as a result.
“We are making Lincoln relevant to this generation,” she said, “which will be who carries his legacy through the next century. That is something we didn’t envision happening when we first opened.”
What they did envision was making the store look exactly like the museum, and many items in the store represent real items in the library’s collection.
For instance, visitors see Lincoln’s original iconic hat in the museum, so the store sells stovepipe hats for kids and adults. Mary Todd Lincoln’s original jewelry is showcased in the Treasures Gallery in the museum, so the store offers replicas of her coral necklace and earrings and her five-diamond onyx ring in the store. They also have items ranging from Gettysburg Address replicas and items with replicas of Lincoln’s signature to replica musket balls used in the Civil War.
The store itself is L-shaped, and they have the children’s area in the back of the store to make it easy for kids to shop for souvenirs while their parents shop.
“Our primary customer changes by season,” Miller explained. “In the spring we see thousands of school-age kids, so our layout is focused on toys, books and candy. In the summer, we see families that are traveling, sometimes from different countries, so we focus heavily on name-dropped souvenirs and apparel -T-shirts, hats, mugs, etc.”
The fall brings more adult bus groups, so they make adult books and home accents a feature. And although attendance drops dramatically in the winter, they do see members and showcase new arrivals and any exhibit-specific product, making lots of floor moves so they’re not seeing the same thing each time they visit.
While they offer many different product categories, books and souvenirs have been at the top of the list since they opened. Miller said the selection of Lincoln books varies from general to specific biographies, and they also have a large selection of Civil War books.
“We continually check the top five sellers in the adult books category and have a table with those books massed out,” she said. “Most of our visitors ask one question when they arrive in the store, ‘If I’m going to buy one book on Lincoln, what would you recommend?’ This table makes it easy for our staff and visitors to see what’s selling right now. We change it by week, based on sales, so the table always looks fresh.”
In addition, a leather-bound edition of “The Wit and Wisdom of Abraham Lincoln” has been a top seller since the store opened. The book is a collection of Lincoln’s funny quotes and stories, making it a popular purchase for just about every visitor, Miller said.
“Keeping the displays fresh and exciting is a challenge,” she said, “but we have found that you have to make it impossible to miss. Put them on a table in a walkway, for example, and they get brought to the register.”
Miller tries to maintain a museum-caliber feel throughout the store, and because she couldn’t do that if the store stocked poorly made items, Miller said they have a standard of only quality, cost-effective, visitor-oriented items.
“For example, everyone asks for a Lincoln bobble-head,” Miller said. “We once had one, but they continued to break and we didn’t feel like it met our standards, so we discontinued it. We could still sell them since everyone wants them, but instead we are sourcing a new vendor that fits our standards. Selling junk to make money isn’t what we do.”
Shoppers want quality, substance and memory-making souvenirs at a reasonable price. Knowing that, they came up with “added value” items and things like pencil and postcard packs sold four for $2. They have a selection of T-shirts that are priced two at a discount, and they offer a baseball cap and T-shirt combination for a value price.
“We pay attention to our visitors and what they need,” Miller said. “When the economy went downhill, so did their expendable income. We wanted to make shopping fun and easy, not a frustration.”
Visitor service is always the top priority. The store is the last place the visitor sees before they exit, so Miller feels it is up to them to make or break the visitor experience.
“Because they come from all over the world, they may only visit once in their lives, so we literally have one shot to make their day,” she said. “Our staff is trained to give concierge-level service, including recommending restaurants and giving directions. It’s not just about the knowing the store; it’s about being an ambassador to our town for those who don’t live here.”
People came from far and wide during 2009, as the Lincoln bicentennial created the “Year of Lincoln” for the museum and store. They had two to three times the events they usually have, including new exhibits, and the attendance was surprisingly high.
“We planned for this year by creating special bicentennial products,” Miller said. “We can create custom items for really any occasion, so we had T-shirts, home décor, candles, souvenirs and even special bicentennial penny press machines. It was our best year so far, and it shows that planning ahead always pays off.”
Miller is planning ahead for October of 2010 as well, as they have another large exhibit for which they’re creating custom product. “Team of Rivals,” based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s bestselling book, is a Sesquicentennial Civil War exhibit. Although the “Civil War in Four Minutes” DVD – an interactive map of the Civil War showing battles and changing battle lines – is popular, they will bring in products they don’t usually carry, like books on Civil War generals, and more specifically, Lincoln’s Cabinet.
“It’s all about knowing your museum or niche and knowing your customers,” Miller said. “Think like your visitors and customers and the items, operations, staff, etc. will fall into place. Focus on the people, not the bottom line, and the sales will come.”