Selling in an Age of Pandemic (and Beyond!)
By Jay Thomson, Museum Store Manager at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia
Ask yourself, “are you selling online”? If not, why not? Is it because you believe you don’t have the resources it would take to create an online store? Or some other obstacle? Or maybe you find such a task too overwhelming? You’re not wrong—without the right resources or experience, getting your shop online can be overwhelming when you don’t know where to begin.
Prior to the global pandemic of the past 18 months, some MSA stores had no eCommerce presence. Some of them had a page on the museum’s website to say, “yes, we have a store; you should visit it when you’re here.” Prior to the pandemic, a museum store could probably get away with that. (Mine did.) But more than a year into a health crisis that closed many of our museums, there are fewer valid reasons for you not to sell online. More and more museum-goers are engaging with institutions online, and that includes the museum store.
Before you rush to build an eCommerce site though, take time to map out a solution that will serve your store’s needs now, and grow with you in the future. Otherwise, you may find yourself frustrated by a lack of options and an inflexibility for growth. Take stock of what you want out of an online shop. Does it need to host dozens, hundreds, or thousands of products? How will you offer members a discount? What about international shipping? Do you sell large, expensive and delicate items (like blown glass)? Or mostly items in the $10 and under range? Are the products you plan to sell online unique to your shop, or can they be bought anywhere? Do you have the right staffing levels to help you fulfill orders and run the site? How will you keep your online inventory in sync with the physical inventory in your shop and in your POS? These are just some of the many questions we’ll tackle in my session at MSA FORWARD VIRTUAL in a few weeks. Even with limited resources, you can make a site that significantly improves your store’s sales, and broadens the museum’s reach. You will be glad you did, too. After the end of the pandemic, your online sales will continue to contribute revenue for years to come.
The Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia where I work was closed for just three months during the pandemic of 2020, from mid-March to mid-June. Working from home during that time, with only a minimal budget to work with, I was able to craft a new online store for the Chrysler. Sure, there were challenges to face—but every problem had a solution within our budget. Ten months later, the Chrysler Shop online now offers more than 1,500 unique items from the Shop, (out of a total of 3,800 active SKUs). We’ve shipped more than 350 orders, adding about 7.5% overall to sales. We’ve even collected small donations to the Chrysler at checkout resulting in hundreds of dollars of contributed revenue. But the best part is that most of the orders we’ve shipped are going to customers scattered across the country, not just the locals who know and love us. Local visitors and members use the site too, thanks to the “free local pickup” option. Very often, they’ll come in to pick up their online order, and make an additional purchase while they are there.
If your answer to the question at the beginning of this article was “we don’t have an online shop because our visitors would never use it,” you’re wrong about that, because your visitor demographic is not a monolithic bloc. The truth is that no matter what institution you represent, some visitors will shop online (if they know about it, or if you invite them to), and some won’t. By catering only to the people you think would “never” shop online, you are losing revenue. And none of us can afford that today.
One unexpected benefit to creating an online store for the Chrysler Shop has been the increase in cooperation and collaboration from other departments within the Museum. Since going online, I’ve worked with the Education Department to turn children’s activities into “Chrysler To Go” kits for sale in the Shop and online. And curators regularly ask for my input on upcoming shows from a retail perspective. Because of that, I’ve had the opportunity to work with some of the contemporary artists we exhibit. Even the Art Research Librarian consults me before buying new books for the library (since I can often get them for less than the library pays. I get a sale, and the library saves money in its acquisition budget). None of this happened on a regular basis before we had an online shop.
I hope I’ve convinced you that you need an online shop if you don’t already have one. If you’re still not sure where to begin, please consider attending my session at MSA FORWARD VIRTUAL on April 28th at 10am Eastern. I won’t address the specifics of which platform is best, etc. but instead guide you through creating a manageable plan that isn’t so overwhelming; one that works for your store.
Want to hear more from Jay Thomson? Attend his session "Selling in an Age of Pandemic... and Beyond! Best Practices for Creating an Online Store," sponsored by: Nina J. Design Studios, at MSA FORWARD VIRTUAL on Wednesday, April 28! Click here to register for the conference.
Jay Thomson is the manager of the Museum Shop at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia. He is a creative artist/designer and retailer with extensive experience in retail management, product development and non-profit organization administration. He presented sessions on Product Development at MSA Forward in 2019 and 2018. Jay also serves as Vice-President/Acting President for the MSA Mid-Atlantic Region Chapter.