Think museum retail is just about “selling stuff?” Think again.
What people report to be the best thing about a museum retail experience may highlight key strategies for museum industry recovery during the pandemic.
At IMPACTS Experience, we’re in-market on an ongoing basis asking many open-ended questions, from “What will make you feel comfortable visiting (as we learn to live alongside the pandemic)?” to “What was the best thing about your most recent visit?” and hundreds of questions in between. The processes we deploy to collect these types of robust data responses allow us to dive deep into perceptions and motivations while minimizing framing and cognitive bias.
This week, we’re sharing what recent museum retail visitors in the United States – without a list or prompt – say is the best thing about their experience.
IMPACTS Experience surveyed 3,119 individuals who had recent retail experiences at 81 museums as of the end of 2021. As mentioned above, the data is populated by lexical analysis, a process wherein we ask individuals open-ended questions. We record the responses and ask follow-up questions to clarify their meaning and relative weight. These responses are then categorized and assigned an appropriate index value. (We use index values a lot at IMPACTS Experience, as they are helpful for understanding the relative influence of different factors. Index values show proportionality around a mean of 100. For instance, a factor with an index value of 200 is twice as important to people as a factor with an index value of 100.) While people may give multiple factors in their response, those with an index value greater than 100 are generally most worthy of attention – and are often the most frequently cited answers to the question asked.
So what are the best things about the museum retail experience? The responses are relevant far beyond the gift shop. In fact, they succinctly illustrate some of the biggest trends that we were seeing before the pandemic that have now taken hold in the “new normal” for museums and performing arts organizations. If you do not work closely with retail operations, we humbly suggest you resist the potential urge to think this may just be a list about “buying stuff.” The items below have critical implications not only for museum retail stores but also for the overall museum visitor experience and what is motivating behaviors and perceptions right now.
Retail stores and operations are an important aspect of the visitor experience as museums adjust to our pandemic-impacted world, and there’s a lot more data where this comes from. Curious? We’re excited to be conducting a workshop on trend research around the role of museum retail for the Museum Store Association in Boston on May 21 during the American Alliance of Museums Annual Meeting. This is a ticketed event and you can register here.
5) Friendly/helpful staff
Index value 100.7
The fifth best thing about the museum retail experience? It’s the people. The people who interact with visitors at a cultural organization matter – a lot. In general, frontline staff members and volunteers at a museum have the ability to make or break the visitor experience.
Among visitor-serving organizations, rude staff and volunteers are the top dissatisfier when a person has a negative experience at a museum or performing arts organization. During the height of the pandemic, this remained the top dissatisfier for cultural organization visitors even as the perceived role of frontline staff shifted to safety protocol enforcement.
But staff and volunteers can also make the experience. Employee courtesy is a critical component of overall satisfaction, and people still consistently report positive interactions with staff and volunteers are one of the best things a visit to a museum or performing arts organization. The importance of connection between people comes up repeatedly in multiple facets of our research. In fact, as of the start of 2022, a positive retail interaction (specifically) increases visitor satisfaction an impressive 8.1%, on average. (We’ll share more on this and other types of interactions at the MSA Forward workshop in Boston.)
4) Finding gifts for a child
Index value 105.5
A cultural organization superpower is the belief that museums provide an academic or intellectual advantage for children. A museum visit’s educational value often plays a meaningful role in justifying a visit to a cultural organization over another activity – say, seeing a movie or enjoying a picnic in the park. Considering this, it may be no surprise that finding gifts for a child makes this list. (On a related note, while this article explores only the top five best things about the retail experience as of end of year 2021, “educational merchandise” is number seven.)
If the child was present for the museum visit, these gifts may also serve to remind them of this special experience well into the future. Museum visits often have emotional value to the people who experience them with loved ones – and museum stores can provide physical touchpoints that symbolize and remind people of that value long after the visit is over.
3) Finding gifts for adult friends or family
Index value 106.3
“Finding gifts for friends or family” is the third item on the list. It is similar in index value to finding gifts for a child, and the reasons why this factor is so high on the list may be similar as well.
The research is clear throughout our work at IMPACTS Experience: People who visit cultural organizations generally believe the experience makes them better friends, neighbors, and parents. Not only have they made the decision to learn something new from a trustworthy organization in their leisure time, but they may also look forward to sharing their experience with someone else by way of a kind gift. The psychology of gift-giving has been extensively researched. Giving gifts makes us feel good, it makes others feel good, and it’s generally good for us. Museum retail stores can help enable these feelings, help underscore memories, and help create meaning and connection from experiences.
2) Supporting the organization
Index value 114.5
Supporting the organization is the second-best thing about a museum retail experience. It’s not just about the merchandise or what is offered, but why. For many people, the “why” is support of your museum’s mission and causes, and its status as an asset to the community.
Across the board for cultural organizations, we see that a museum’s mission and what it stands for is ever more important to people – and we are tracking and presenting this research on an ongoing basis. During the pandemic and around the globe, we’ve seen elevated perceptions of trust in museums and the belief that museum should suggest ways to support their missions. (Sign up here to see this some of this research shared at the virtual MuseumNext Growing Audiences Summit on May 9th.) Not only are these findings exciting, but they are also critical for museum engagement strategies as the industry aims to recover and expand audiences.
Given that supporting your museum is one of the best things about the retail experience, then it may be helpful to underscore that these purchases really do support the organization! Put up signs. Thank shoppers for their support. Encourage them to become members so that they may provide even greater support…and to come back again soon, too!
This “best thing” may be strongest within organizations that promote this message and remind people of an organization’s mission and good works. Buying something cool that symbolizes a memory, may make for a meaningful gift, and helps the community? That’s a feel-good opportunity all around.
1) Unique merchandise (only available at location)
Index value: 200.5
By far the best thing about the museum retail experience is unique merchandise, or merchandise that is perceived as only available at the museum retail store. At the outset, this may not surprise readers – exclusivity sells! Unique merchandise can serve to highlight a special experience in a way that cannot be achieved elsewhere. This novelty relates to more than just physical goods, too. People assign added value to novelty in cultural organization settings on the whole. Unique merchandise can contribute to the feeling of having had a unique, personalized experience – and that feeling can play a meaningful role in elevating the entire museum visit.
Owning unique merchandise that can only be purchased at a museum shop demonstrates the personal brand of the buyer. The items people purchase from museum stores can say a lot about who they are, what they value, and who they hope to become. These unique items purchased from a museum retail store show that they are the kind of person who attends museums – and that they are not only interested in learning new things themselves but also in supporting the learning of others in their community.
A positive museum retail experience can improve the entire visit. The visitor experiences happening within museum retail stores can directly motivate attendance, encourage repeat visitation, and cultivate philanthropic support.
And with this article now written, I will shut my notebook from the International Museum of Surgical Science, put my pen back in its pouch from the Paul Revere House, and load up my National Aquarium branded thumb drive with the data for the public speaking engagements where you’ll find IMPACTS Experience in May:
- May 9: MuseumNext Growing Audiences Summit (Virtual)
- May 11: American Museums Membership Conference (Detroit)
- May 21: Museum Store Association’s MSA Forward (Boston)
It’s go-time for data, executive leaders! We look forward to seeing you soon.
IMPACTS Experience provides data specific to organizations or markets through workshops, keynote presentations, webinars, and data services such as pricing recommendations, market potential analyses, concept testing, and Awareness, Attitude, and Usage studies. Learn more.
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