museums&MORE Summer 2009
Regional Retail

As much as some curators might hate to admit it, there’s more to the museum experience than just the exhibits. And that’s why local and regional products can be such a valuable category for museum stores.

People that go to museums are in a mindset,” said Terry Davis, president and CEO of the American Association
for State and Local History (AASLH), based in Nashville, Tenn. “And no matter what subject the museum covers — say it’s a natural history museum in Staunton, Va. — people still feel connected to that region and that area while they’re there. It puts people in a frame of mind where they want to think about where they’re standing, they want to think about history.”

That’s good news for museum stores, Davis explained, because it allows managers to reach visitors on a level that the museum itself might otherwise miss, whether it’s with low-cost mementos emblazoned with the city name or one-of-a-kind local art.

“You’ll always have your families and your school tours where the kids have $3 to spend at the shop, but as far as local art and local gifts go, I really think that people love to be able to say ‘I got this beautiful pottery coffee mug at this great museum in Staunton,'” Davis said.

Andrew Andoniadis, a museum retail consultant based out of Portland, Ore., agreed, saying that regional products are absolutely something that museum stores should be looking at. “It’s one of the ways that they can distinguish themselves from other museum stores and perhaps other retail stores in their area,” he said. “But like everything else, you have to look at the ROI, the return on investment. Some things are great and worth it in every respect and other things maybe are not so much.”

The key is finding out how museum store managers and buyers can make local and regional gifts work for them.

A Sense of Place

As assistant director for museum enterprises at the Science Museum of Virginia (SMV) in Richmond, Va., Jennifer Morehead sees a wide variety of shoppers at the stores she manages for the SMV — the Danville Science Center and the Virginia Aviation Museum. From school groups to seniors, it seems like everyone who visits the museums comes for a different reason.

But the one thing they seem to have in common is a desire for regional products at each museum store.
“We carry quite a few Virginia-specific products,” Morehead said, “but as with all of our products, we work to incorporate them into our educational mission. We don’t want to put something out there just for the sake of selling it. For example, we have a wildflower garden, so we sell seed packets for flowers that are native to this area. We like to incorporate some of the exhibits into our regional gifts.”

It hasn’t always been this way, however. Morehead didn’t stock much in the way of local gifts for a long time in an effort to avoid being pigeonholed as just another “souvenir store.” Her customers, however, had other ideas.
“Basically, we had so many customers asking us for these things that we eventually had to start stocking them,” she explained. “For many of our customers, they’re stopping at the store on the way out of the museum. So if they ask for something and we don’t have it, they might leave disappointed. The trick was finding a way to make it work for us.”

As mentioned, part of Morehead’s “trick” was stocking local gifts that played off the museum’s science- and history-focused themes, including a line of educational books tied to the state’s Standards of Learning assessment program. The most important thing, Morehead said, is keeping the tenor of your museum in mind when selecting regional products.

“Our stores are all very different,” she said of the shops she manages, “so we try to tailor the product mix for each audience. We haven’t been asked for much in terms of local gifts at the Virginia Aviation Museum, for example, though we do stock some aviation history books there. At the Science Museum, though, we get customers who are looking for that sort of thing, so we try to meet that need.”

Location, Location, Location

So how should museum store managers approach the idea of adding local and regional products to their shelves?

For Greg McKay, manager of the Denver Art Museum Shop, the key has been finding products that fit with his museum’s mission. “We stay away from the typical souvenir-y stuff like Colorado books and state maps,” he said, “but I think people do tend to look for things that will allow them to look back fondly on their visit to the museum. I think when somebody comes in and they strike a bond with a particular piece, it’s nice when they can take something away that reminds them of Denver and the things they saw here.”

Though McKay does admit that regional gifts aren’t his biggest category, he says they are consistent sellers and always seem to be in demand. Given his place within an art museum, his store carries a wide array of items made by local artisans, including jewelry, ceramics, handbags and wearable art. The selection also extends to Denver-themed items including reproductions of the city’s famous “Blue Bear” statue and holiday decorations patterned after the state’s governor’s mansion. Gifts associated with the Democratic National Convention even made an appearance when the political shindig landed in Denver last fall.
For some buyers, local art is the way to go.

“Any kind of local artistry goes over really well as long as it isn’t too expensive,” said AASLH’s Davis. “I’d also say that I think the museum store should be an outlet for local artists and photographers.
That’s an important role.”

McKay says he rotates out his art and jewelry collections about every six months and, although there is no formal jury process, he does pick and choose from the products that are brought to his attention by buyers and artists. “We’ll hang on to those that are really successful, but we try to have something new all the time,” he said.

At the Science Museum of Virginia, Morehead has a bit more leeway in choosing local products to stock her stores, given the museum’s broad themes. In addition to regional books and state logo emblazoned mementos, she also stocks gift packs of Virginia peanuts, local plants and, of course, jewelry to tie into the museum’s geology exhibits. In addition to trade shows and the usual channels, she said she sources much of her local lineup with goods that are brought directly to her attention or that she sees at other stores in the area.

“Once you put the word out that you’re interested in locally made products, people seem to come out of the woodwork,” Andoniadis said. “

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