Visual Merchandising in Museums

February 17, 2020

By Catherine McGoldrick

This article was originally published by the Association for Cultural Enterprises.

Cultural Enterprises Academy

A few months ago, I was in a premier visitor attraction shop (as I often am!) and noticed that, despite exiting through the gift shop, visitors were tending to drift through the shop and leave without a purchase.


Often the difference between whether one purchases or not in a museum shop comes down to one powerful factor: visual merchandising. I love this quote from Michael Guajardo of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts:

“Visual merchandising is the silent sales team that is always working to impact the bottom line … is always on the clock, and never takes breaks.”

Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Good visual merchandising will boost your conversion rate, your average transaction value and even attract visitors to your shop on a standalone basis. Here are my top tips for using it successfully.

1. Get them in.

If, like a lot of us, you aren’t lucky enough to have visitors exit through the gift shop, it is absolutely essential to catch the eye of the customer on the way past. Use your shop windows creatively to draw customers in, and make sure the displays at the front of the shop reflect current exhibitions or seasonality to tempt them to come in for a look. If you are lucky enough to have exit through the gift shop, wow them with displays to make sure they stay and purchase.

2. Know what you are selling – and who you are selling to!

Dippy on Tour

Dippy on Tour

It’s really important to know who your customers are and reflect this in your visual merchandising. Nowhere is this more important than in your shop layout. In National Museums NI, all our shop spaces need to offer products for both children and adults. In order to manage this, the shop floor is clearly zoned so customers can find “their” area with color and signage. No one wants to try on expensive jewelry with bouncy balls whizzing past their ears! Products and visual displays are targeted to the target market. A display to attract children is very different than one for adults.

3. Make sure your customer knows, too.

I am obsessed with clean lines on our displays and have clear rules on merchandise positioning. A customer should be able to go to any area of a shop and understand the merchandise immediately. What is the story you are telling? It could be dippy, Irish art, local history, but it should be crystal clear to the customer.

Displays that are fussy and aren’t thought through can actually be detrimental to sales. If the customer doesn’t understand what an area or display is telling/selling, they get confused and drift off bemused by too much “stuff.” As a buyer, I don’t purchase anything if I don’t know exactly where that product will go in the shop and what story it will fit into.

Below is a fantastic example of a clean, clear storytelling display — one glance tells the customer everything. This display says if you love this painting, here is the place to shop!

National Gallery, London

National Gallery, London

4. Create beautiful displays.

An unusual or lovely display can stop customers in their tracks. When building a display, start with the core pieces those you need/want to sell; it could be a catalogue or some key exhibition merchandise. Then layer in complementary product such as more generalist books on the topic. Items in a display should be clearly related to the main products.

Create eye appeal by using focal points to add height or creating pyramid displays. I always step away a few times while building the display and come back to review. Is it too busy? Does it feel unbalanced? Often the key is to simplify rather than try to throw too much into the mix. Products should be able to “breathe” within the display and not feel cramped and squashed. If you are selling high-end products in a display, it is crucial to build in space around them to convey the special nature of the product and suggest luxury and value. Add striking accessories or specialist fittings to add drama and interest.

Where you are selling a disparate collection of items — for example, assorted ceramics or homeware — use color palettes to bring them together. Always bear in mind the purpose of the display is to sell. Displays should be easy to access and feel “shoppable” — the customer doesn’t want to feel afraid to touch or reach for products.

5. Add height.


Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

6. Use color to tie the display together.

Picasso Museum, Paris

Picasso Museum, Paris

7. Add striking accessories.

Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

8. Use your suppliers.

The suppliers who provide artisan jewelry or handmade ceramics to your museum are talented, design-led people. Why not use this to get them to come in and merchandise their product for you? They often use props and materials that reflect their own unique vision and help to create special and memorable displays. The supplier below uses etchings, paintings and antique looking drawing books to create a unique look. It’s a win-win for the museum shop and for their brand.


Ghost & Bonesetter – Ulster Museum, Belfast

Ghost & Bonesetter – Ulster Museum, Belfast

9. Use clear point of sale to highlight the special nature of local or hand made products and their provenance.


10. Don’t forget to grab an extra sale.

Once you have the customers at the till point, why not try to motivate an additional impulse purchase? Provide another chance to buy exhibition catalogues or motivate an impulse add-on buy with items such as beautiful bookmarks or striking wrapping paper.

“We’ve done surveys, and about a third of the people who come to the museum say that they plan to shop here,” Rich Perdott, the Met’s vice president of merchandising, told the New York Times. “They’ve said they want to buy something that’s a tangible memory of their visit. Part of our goal always is to give them something they couldn’t get elsewhere.”

Remember, the visitors are already on-site and motivated to purchase; don’t let the opportunity slip through your fingers!


Catherine McGoldrick has 20 years of experience in retail buying. Previously, she held a senior role with a major retailer in high street fashion, responsible for buying and sourcing for multiple stores across several countries. She is currently the retail manager for National Museums NI. This role comprises all aspects of retail, including buying and product development for all the NMNI sites, shop fits and pop-up shops. She has 10 years of experience in the cultural retail sector.

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