Understanding the link between members and museum retail can elevate engagement and revenue strategies alike.
May has been a busy month on the road for IMPACTS Experience, and we’re still at it! Early in the month in Detroit, we had the honor of delivering a keynote on the importance of membership for museums, and just last week in Boston we had the opportunity to deliver a workshop on the importance of museum retail. These data outcomes and related analysis were requested for publication on this site, so we’ve moved this article to the top of our publication schedule!
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there’s an important connection between these two areas of the cultural organization experience. In our “new normal,” museums are generally refocused on building their communities of support by way of membership, and retail can play an important role in engaging members. This makes understanding the critical link between members and museum retail even more important.
Members are increasingly important for a museum’s long-term financial health
Even before the pandemic, members were a critical group to engage – and their importance has only increased. A multi-year case study conducted by IMPACTS Experience revealed that members have a 4.5x greater monetary value to a museum when compared to general admission visitors, an important consideration as expenses outpace revenues. And while museums were reaching the same people more often before the pandemic, these conditions provided opportunities to elevate visitors to supporters, thus enabling more effective efforts to expand audiences to be funded.
Not only that, but the importance of a museum’s mission was also already on the rise. One of the key findings for the cultural sector during the past two years was the benefit of having revenue that is less reliant on the gate given the unpredictable nature of the coronavirus. At the recent American Museum Membership and the Texas Association of Museums conferences, we shared contemporary research that members are more motivated by a museum’s mission than ever before – making this valuable group of supporters a potentially vital one for financial stability. We also know that mission-motivated members are now even more likely than transaction-based members (those who are in it for the discounts, for instance) to find value for the cost of their memberships, renew, buy higher level memberships, and endorse visiting an organization to others.
Another key finding is that perceptions of trust in museums have increased throughout the world during the pandemic (as we recently shared with the 2022 research at MuseumNext’s Growing Audience Summit). Cultural organizations are in an optimal situation to capitalize on these gains to cultivate a community of supporters around their missions. We are excited to be closely watching trends related to membership at IMPACTS Experience as we all learn to live alongside the coronavirus, and we have a few more articles in the works to share in the upcoming months.
Here’s what you need to know: Members are important, and you may expect an increased focus on them in the coming years as organizations consider their business and engagement models.
What do members have to do with museum retail experiences?
The research shared here contemplates members and non-member visitors alike to sixteen cultural organizations in the United States. These sixteen organizations are all exhibit/place-based cultural organizations (e.g., zoos, aquariums, museums, gardens, historic sites) that charge admission and serve over one million visitors each year. Many of the market leaders in the nonprofit visitor-serving industry are included in this data. We are specifically analyzing these organizations because they have well-established membership programs and have meaningfully invested in their retail operations. In short, these institutions have developed offerings on both the membership and the retail fronts so they better allow us to understand how people can and do behave when these options are fully available for them. They may thus provide leadership-level insight into how members and visitors behave at the peak of their engagement opportunities. Contemplating smaller institutions with less developed membership opportunities or less extensive retail operations within these particular analyses risks obscuring how members want or expect to behave when more robust opportunities are available.
Museum retail can help get members back in the door (to engage and renew)
The top reason why expired members have not renewed is simply because they intend to renew when they next visit…and they haven’t visited yet. In fact, this is the case for 62.9% of expired museum members who hadn’t renewed within 24 months as of the end of the first quarter of 2022. (It’s a far cry from unactualized intent (“I forgot”), which is the second biggest reason during this contemporary timeframe at 28.7% of lapsed members.)
A key to membership renewals as museums consider membership engagement strategies in our “new normal?” Getting expired members to visit.
Among the sixteen market leaders monitored, 20.2% of members cite the gift shop as a contributory reason why they decided to visit the organization in the first place. This is compared to 4.9% of non-member visitors to these entities.
It is more difficult to get folks to leave their homes these days. Knowing that retail-related factors contribute to the motivation to attend among members – our closely held constituents – can be meaningful for engagement strategies, marketing, membership, and retail operations alike. Retail operations can play a meaningful role in reinforcing our own ideas about who we are and what we stand for. The best things about a museum retail experience reflect upon who we are and the type of person we want to be.
Critically, we know that people believe that visiting a museum makes them better friends, neighbors, and parents. Purchasing an item from the gift shop can reinforce perceptions that someone is the type of person who supports their community by way of supporting an organization, purchases unique gifts for friends and family, and leaves their home to have educational experiences. This factor may be even stronger for members.
Museum members visit the gift store
Compared to non-member visitors, members are notably more likely to enter the gift shop in the first place. Museum retail represents a critical touchpoint for valuable constituents with 72.2% of members going into the gift shop among these organizations.
When we extend the research beyond these larger institutions and consider all 92 of the cultural entities we monitor for these analyses, 24.6% of visitors go into the gift shop. This is a notably lower percentage. This may not be because folks are necessarily disinterested in retail operations for non-market-leader institutions, but because retail may not be offered in the same capacity. For some of these sixteen larger organizations, the gift shop may be considered a related attraction in and of itself.
Among the 24.6% of visitors who enter cultural organization gift shops in the United States, 83.2% say that the retail experience positively contributed to their overall satisfaction.
Members are more likely to purchase from the retail store than non-member visitors
For these market leaders, 23.1% of members made a purchase at the retail store, compared to 12.9% of non-member visitors. Given that gifts from cultural organizations can serve as symbols to remind us of positive memories and can reinforce our values and how we see ourselves, it makes sense that members may be more likely to make retail purchases.
Keep in mind that even though a higher percentage of all members make retail purchases compared to all non-member visitors, there tend to be significantly more non-member visitors to cultural institutions than members. Thus, the key takeaway from this chart is not that most people who make purchases at the gift shop are members, but that if someone is a member, they are more likely to make a retail purchase. Indeed, being able to reinforce positive memories and self-perceptions around the organizations that they support may be a particular desire among members.
Discounts on retail are frequently included as a benefit within many membership programs. But research shows that “members-only retail discounts” is only the ninth most important membership benefit for cultural organizations as of the end of the first quarter of 2022. Members consider benefits such as supporting the organization, free admission, priority access, and positively impacting the museum’s mission significantly more important. Nearly a quarter of members are having a retail interaction. Instead of assuming they’re there for the discount, consider that those interactions can be an important touchpoint of engagement for strengthening this community of supporters.
Members make higher value retail purchases
Perhaps unsurprisingly, members also spend more money per transaction at the retail store than non-members! This amount considers any discounts offered as a membership benefit, meaning that members are still spending more money per transaction onsite even with this aspect contemplated.
Are members important to retail or is retail important to members? Not so fast. The museum experience is an interrelated system of motivations, perceptions, and influences. Retail is important to members, and members are important to retail. This information is a data-driven call for partnership between onsite retail operations and membership/philanthropy teams. These research findings show that not only are there opportunities to better understand key constituents, but there are also opportunities to team up to aid the entire long-term engagement strategy for the organization.
Museums are doing exciting things to capitalize on this relationship! To share just a couple of the many great examples we heard this weekend, the de Young Museum encourages member signups at the gift shop, recognizing the power that this critical touchpoint can cultivate. The Barnes Foundation offers an incentive for staff members to promote memberships that support the organization’s mission, understanding the power of positive interactions with staff to contribute to visitor satisfaction and membership signups and renewals. We’re excited to see more exciting initiatives develop as the industry gains more information about membership trends and behaviors in our new, pandemic-impacted reality.
The research in this article underscores the opportunity for strategic thinking and a powerful team-up within institutions that may result in greater membership signups and renewals, more satisfied supporters, more retail sales, and – most importantly – more positive memories shared and commemorated by our guests.
You keep collaborating. We’ll keep collecting the data. Thank you for being here and the work that you do.
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