The Chazen Museum of Art, located on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, underwent a major expansion and remodel project that opened in Fall 2011. Unfortunately, while the store was given a bigger space, it continued to operate in the red and was not able to find its voice or leverage the added media attention or visitorship into an increase in revenue. The store was disorganized, both in the sense of product selection and how that product was merchandised. I came on as museum shop manager in November 2013. Within a week of taking on the retail management for the Chazen I knew I had a huge challenge ahead of me.
During the transition of management at the Chazen Museum of Art Shop, the Museum Store Association proved to be an invaluable resource. Because the interim store manager had little retail or management experience, I had to review all of the store processes to ensure the shop was following best practices. This included purchasing, cash handling policies, PCI compliance, consignment and vendor contracts, customer service and training manuals, and inventory control.
The largest project was dealing with the large amount of inventory on hand. I knew that an open-to-buy system needed to be put into place. The Chazen has a rigorous exhibition schedule, usually hosting 10-12 temporary exhibitions a year and also rotating pieces in the permanent galleries. I noticed right away that patrons wanted to be able to take something home to remind them of the exhibition they had just seen. The open-to-buy plan would have to encompass not only seasonal changes, but also include a buying plan for exhibition specific merchandise.
As old merchandise began to clear out, albeit not as quickly as one would hope, the shop was able to bring in exhibition-related merchandise. This included creating custom merchandise for the first time. Having just returned from MSA’s Annual Conference & Expo, I had a wealth of new vendors to help create items for an upcoming summer exhibition. I really wanted a good variety of product categories for custom merchandise and I was able to find vendors that could create merchandise from throw pillows to personal accessories to magnets and notecards. Making these connections was invaluable to the shop as we had little open-to-buy and needed to work with vendors who could accommodate low minimums and smaller orders. The custom merchandise has been a hit among staff and visitors, and has given management confidence that the shop is moving in the right direction.
The shop has also started laying the groundwork to make itself an integral part of the visitor experience. By partnering with the publishing, events, marketing and membership departments I have been able to foster relationships that give the shop a seat at the table among fellow colleagues. This has helped them recognize the important role the shop plays, not only in terms of a revenue-generating source, but also as a place for patrons to connect with staff about what they’ve seen in the galleries, and as a source to continue our patrons’ interaction with art, even after they’ve left the building.
The shop has also focused on participating in the university community by targeting staff and students through promotional email. In addition, the shop has begun actively taking part in opportunities to participate in the Downtown Madison Business Association. This includes providing items and coupons for welcome bags for various conferences, participating in discounted co-op advertising and providing donations for promotional giveaways. My goal is to make the Chazen Museum Shop a destination for not only museum patrons, but for the community at large. We have a wonderful university and downtown community in Madison, and I believe making the shop active in those communities will prove to be the driver for future success.
Heather Groff is the manager of the Chazan Museum of Art Shop