museums&MORE Winter 2014
Universal Appeal

A global approach to store experience

In looking at museum retail around the world, there are always interesting comparisons to be made. In some of these comparisons, the ideas or lessons may be as little as the presentation, and/or how the assortment is culturally driven and unique to that market. In other areas much can be gained, particularly as museums’ retail is at the crossroads of both the local and the international shopper. Very few examples of retail beyond museum stores can claim to have such an effective cross-section of visitors.

Around the Globe

On a recent visit to a number of European museums, there were multiple examples that stood out; some served as good references points of best practices already in place compared to their U.S. counterparts. For others, the approach might offer some interesting opportunities and insights into what could be next for your store.

One example is the retail that can be found at both the Sagrada Familia and with the La Pedrera attractions in Spain. Both of these attractions are architectural in nature, and in themselves, are artifacts.” Unlike a typical museum, be it Natural History, fine art or cultural, these institutions do not in effect have a “collection,” but rather the place becomes the inspiration for much of what is sold.

At Sagrada Familia it was interesting to see how elements of the architecture play into the store space itself and the product that is sold. Whether through the use of cracked and reclaimed ceramics, in the shapes, modules and forms of the building, and of course the more obvious choices of product associated with the architect Antoni Gaudí, the history of the building where technology, architecture and art come together to create the masterpiece that is being built today.

The gift store space is influenced given the sculptural nature of the cathedral that it is associated with. The use of large focal fixtures works well as the hordes of tourists pulse through the space on its main floor. The first level shop is for quick selection, and the second is for deeper investigation.

At La Pedrera, the Gaudí apartment house, the shop also reflects well and draws its inspiration from the building itself. A unique presentation display of jewelry offers a verticalized approach bringing jewelry to eye level, with displays arranged on a variety of floating platforms and rods. This makes the product appear almost suspended in space. Large slab-like glass panels provide security for more fragile projects without the usual formality, obstruction and visual competition of hard cases with products having uninterrupted visual accessibility.

The institution that is most similar to this in the U.S. is the Museum of Arts and Design in New York. Within its iconic Edward Durell Stone building, the same approach to a curated inspired collection that is both reflective of the visit, but also inspirational to the user and wearer is similar. The benchmark for all of these successfully represented shops is being inspired by, but not competitive to, their host environment.

By bringing together an assortment of merchandise that has broad commercial appeal, but more importantly, is just not about “finishing the visit” but allowing the product to provide inspiration after the visit, each has kept in mind the mission and importance of celebrating and inspiring creativity.

Other U.S. examples to compare to these more architectural or European counterparts include the Statue of Liberty and Liberty Island Gift Shops. These stores also support an “artifact” that in itself is a sculpture but as well, a place with the ability to create the appearance of diversity of product choice within the reality of a fairly defined and narrow subject matter. The merchandising allows an interface with a variety of applications from snow globes and sculptures to apparel celebrating the Statue of Liberty image, the guest senses both choice and focus.

Place Making

Another interesting presentation is at the newly remodeled Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Here, interestingly enough, in contrast to the building focus of La Pedrera and Sagrada Familia museums, the Rijksmuseum has an enviable collection of great masterworks. The museum store is in a rather compact space. Rather than trying to provide a breadth of assortment along traditional classification lines, they have chosen to create a series of podiums or islands where the art acts as anchoring themes for a unique and eclectic mixture of products that are put together around a cohesive story of inspiration.

By creating these dozen or so “theme” islands, and doing so beyond just a basis of transfer of image onto product, the consumer becomes a bit of an artist in their own right, curating, collecting and assembling those parts, pieces and elements from the displays that will allow them to produce their own “masterpiece.”

With the Rijksmuseum, a simple, highly geometric layout of the space creates a strong sense of order and serenity within the crowds that are already present within a museum that is arguably on every cultural tourist’s “bucket list.”

Lastly, if not the most important in all of these, is the creation of unique “place making.” The trend in the museum towards “cookie cutter” shops, spaces with a similar aesthetic, presentation format, and in even some cases merchandising, is avoided in each of these European institutions and their innovative American counterparts as well. They clearly have a sense of pride, and reinforce their institution’s uniqueness (something even more important in the European environment with its plethora of competing institutions in often the same city if not the same street). Each shop presents itself in a way that is unique and iconic to the institution itself.

This iconicity is both an asset of the institution but as well, a major differentiation point and calling card — unlike the mall, the chain store or even another museum shop. Creating a balance within your store to appeal your different customers’ shopping habits — as well shopping realties, given the diversity of age and sophistication of the customer — is your challenge today.

Remember, art at its best is original, personal and one of a kind. Your store should be too.

Kenneth Nisch is Chairman of JGA, a retail design and brand strategy firm in Southfield, Mich. JGA’s clients include the Detroit Institute of Arts, American Museum of Natural History, The Museum of Arts and Design, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, McCormick World of Flavors, Ripley’s Aquariums, Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island Gift Shops and The Henry Ford. For more information, visit

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