museums&MORE Winter 2010
The Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum Store

Most people don’t realize there’s a big difference between a typical souvenir shop and a museum store. For Marcia Souers-Doell, product manager and developer for The Museum Store at the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum in Auburn, Ind., the difference is clear and shows on her shelves.

The Museum Store differentiates itself with direct product connection to the museum’s collection and a visual immersion into the museum’s story. Many items are connected through signage placed next to products explaining their historical and cultural relationship to the museum’s story.

For example, we are currently selling a Dorothy Parker inspired martini glass etched with one of her more notable quotes,” Souers-Doell said. “Signage explains that Ms. Parker was an uncommon wit of the 1930s (historical and cultural connection) and drove a highly desirable Packard Convertible Coupe (automobile connection). It adds that more Packards may be viewed in the museums’ Gallery of Classics (an invitation to view the exhibit).”

The store itself is visually compelling through the use of over-sized, sepia-tone archival photography sourced directly from the museum’s archival department. The images help tell the story, and the result is that the visitor is instantly immersed in the era, intrigued by products and invited to further investigate the collection.

In effect, the museum store space of 1,700 square feet has been engineered to help sell and invite visitors to learn more. This educational focus is often not found in souvenir shops, but is an appreciable motivation in a mission-driven museum store.

Revved Up Remodel
The museum itself, housed in the original art deco showroom and executive office building of the former Auburn Automobile Co., is one of the country’s most respected classic car repositories. It’s a National Historic Landmark, a distinction that carries with it the opportunity to appeal to history buffs who may or may not be automobile aficionados.

To accommodate, The Museum Store provides products that fulfill this obligation for every age of visitor, from a coloring storybook to archival-sourced books written by museum staff on the historical importance of the Auburn Automobile Co. Souers-Doell said the overall product selection has a higher perceived value than its actual retail price and this generates interest and sales, while a comfortable atmosphere and creative merchandising play heavily into this perception.

“Products that directly recall the visitor’s experience of the automobile collection sell the best, with a slant towards visual media product such as a DVD or virtual CD-ROM, followed by a souvenir book title filled with historical references, an automobile trademark wearable or a scale model of an automobile from the collection,” Souers-Doell said. “Replicas of the hood mascots seen on the classic cars sell very well, as does art-deco inspired jewelry.”

In the spring of 2009, The Museum Store underwent a transformation in location and overall appearance. The former location of the store — in the interior of the museum among the exhibits — was inconvenient for casual shoppers fearing an admission fee to merely browse. The store was also difficult to find after visitors perused three floors of exhibits.

Over a period of a year, a design committee made up of museum staff, board members and an architectural firm known for its historical appreciations, evaluated the physical space destined to become the new Visitor Services area, including The Museum Store. The process involved the demolition of small, unconnected rooms and the construction of an open, unobstructed space. A minimalist approach to fixtures and P.O.S. counters allowed for a sense of greater spaciousness.

“The psychological switch from a souvenir shop mentality to a mission-connected museum store became immediate when the mission of the new 2,700 square foot space revealed itself,” Souers-Doell said. “Create an inviting space complimentary in color and feel to the ambiance of the museum itself; make it grand, visually generate interest in the museum’s automotive story with graphics and products; tell our story, and promote a service mind set accommodating visitors needs; and employ service with sincerity to invite sales.”

Full Speed Ahead
Since the move, sales have increased by 15 percent and Souers-Doell has witnessed an uplifting of store staff energized with spirited salesmanship. With a defined purpose and presentation, the retail and service area has come alive and profitability has followed.

“Our demographic is an older male, age 45-65 with expendable income and an automotive or historical interest in the museum’s collection,” Souers-Doell said. “Male shoppers, in general, are not browsers; they prefer to seek out a specific desired product quickly.”

With that in mind, the staff is trained regularly on product reviews and go-to product placements, sizing of garments and details that men often overlook but want to know. A particular knowledge of the store’s book selection is important to sell to this demographic as well. Souers-Doell said grandparents are also a group to accommodate by offering them youth-related products, doing well with pedal cars, youth T-shirts, vintage-toys and juvenile book titles.

Souers-Doell attends regional and national markets, but has become a greater advocate of finding vendors who specialize in the museum retail market, as they know the variables involved in that arena, from budget cycles to the restraints on production costs.

“Because of a focused niche market, it is difficult to find the item off the shelf,” Souers-Doell said. “Rather I look for vendors who are willing to customize and work directly with me on product projects.”

A popular item is the Cord 810/812 Replica Dashboard Clock. This item was developed from visitor interest in the craftsmanship and details of classic cars in general, but dashboards in particular.

“The clock was crafted into a replica clock face developed from an existing mass-marketed clock, with details derived from the original 1935 patent drawing of the Auburn Automobile Company dashboard clock added,” Souers-Doell said. “It’s further enhanced with a provenance consisting of a copy of the 1935 patent drawing, informative text and a biographical sketch of the designer, all in a tidy package.”

The museum’s virtual tour CD-ROM strategically placed in a computer kiosk accessible to visitors in the museum store draws quite a bit of attention. The product was developed to answer the perpetual question: do you have something that shows all the cars in the museum? The kiosk is always on and monitored by store staff ready to respond to questions or comments.

But how does she respond to the perpetual question: how have you been impacted by the economic downturn?
“It is one thing to explain away lagging sales on this inconvenient situation; it is quite another to face it head-on and rise above it,” Soeurs-Doell said. “To this end, I have become more aggressive approaching tour groups to the museum, particularly car clubs that schedule a museum tour.”

Knowing that they are already automotive enthusiasts, she creates a special display for this visiting group with signage and special product discounts geared to them. She also makes available product-development services, should the group desire a special lapel pin, T-shirt or customized mug commemorating their tour.

“Learn the museum’s collection; learn every aspect of it so as to accurately interpret it through products,” she advised. “Never be satisfied with your work, there is always more to do.”

And that just might be the difference between a typical souvenir shop and a museum store — helping drive the extraordinary home.”

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