Retail at The Postal Museum | The Association for Cultural Enterprises

Retail at The Postal Museum

Katie Fairburn, Buying and Merchandising Manager at the newly opened Postal Museum, shares the thinking behind her retail strategy for the museum’s two shops, with some top tips for success.

Buying Strategy

One of the main current buying trends is a desire to invest in stories – customers want to know their gift for a friend has been designed and made thoughtfully and that their money is supporting a good cause. Museum shops can really fulfil this desire when done well and the vast improvement in museum offerings means customers see these shops as a viable alternative to the high street.

In creating the retail offering for the Postal Museum I’ve tried wherever possible to collaborate with great brands and suppliers to create products that really tell a story such as Just Trade, York Scarves and Fine Cell Work. For instance Fine Cell Work are a social enterprise training prisoners in needlework which encourages self-esteem while providing an independent income. We’ve created a bag and purse together based on the mail bags in our collection, which for some time were sewn by prisoners. The product is high quality, has a strong story, supports two charities and looks good too!

Planning and Research

Extensive audience research was central to our product planning, but our biggest influence has probably been other museum buyers and merchandisers. We are so lucky in this sector that people will share their experiences and even sales data – you won’t see that on the high street! Meeting these people through organisations such as ACE has been invaluable when the planning has all felt very hypothetical.

Creating a Retail Strategy

I worked with retail consultant Selina Fellows to create a retail strategy and this provided the groundwork for everything I’ve done in the last year. It’s set out both the data in terms of expected visitors and financial targets but also the ethos and feel of the shops. It was hard work and it’s tempting to just dive in but whenever I questioned a decision, referring back to the strategy helped enormously. It can also help demonstrate to board members, other departments and other stakeholders why retail is crucial to the visitor experience and the museum’s sustainability.

Pricing Strategy

I worked with Selina to create target margins for different categories of products. As a new site with a small budget and hardly any storage I was often looking at minimum order quantities and it was often tough to hit the right figures, but making the margin which returned the most investment to the museum was a base requirement.

Shop Location

We are spread across two sites and are lucky enough to have a shop in each. We haven’t quite managed an ‘exit through the gift shop’ but it’s pretty close! Our shops are still a prominent part of the welcome area which is really important – ideally we want the shop to help build anticipation for the exhibition as well as providing visitors with something to take home to remind them of their day.

Visual Merchandising

Getting professional help is key! I’ve been lucky enough to have Arantxa Garcia from Exhibeo VM helping me set up the shop and her vision, skills and experience are invaluable. If it’s not feasible you can certainly learn the basics from benchmarking, training days and Pinterest - if you’re creative you can create something eye catching with a small budget.

Golden Rules of Stock Management

Solid systems will make the world of difference. Even if an expensive system isn’t feasible a carefully planned system will pay dividends in reliability and insight. Stock rotation is vital and we will be aiming for a three-month rotation to keep the offer fresh and minimise our holding. If it’s not selling, slash prices loudly and enthusiastically and ideally only once – old stock hurts your bottom line and can distract or put off a customer. We’ve previously fallen foul of the never-ending stock clearance, and speaking to colleagues from the sector it seems to be a museum shop epidemic!

Finding Good Suppliers

Make the most of suppliers that already supply the industry as they are more likely to be sympathetic to your budgets, low order quantities and tight timescales! Good suppliers share their experiences and will be helpful and flexible. An organisation like ACE can help with this (see ACE Associate Member Directory).

I would also attend trade fairs. Autumn and Spring Fair give a great idea of what trends will be coming up in wider retail, but local shows like Top Drawer and Pulse, as well as the ACE Trade Show, will help you to find smaller brands. These will have great people behind them who really believe in their products and will be willing to try and work with you. Start with a small order so you can test the market. Consider how much you want to be selling the product at and work out if you can achieve a 50% margin– a blunt tool but it will give you an idea if it’s going to bring in sufficient income.

Setting and Using Targets

Starting out you have to rely on market research to give you an idea of customer numbers, shopping behaviours and average spend. Museums aren’t comparable to the high street for targets such as conversion rates so industry benchmarking, such as the ACE Retail Benchmarker, is also invaluable. Remember spend will be heavily impacted by whether you are a free or paying site – visitors will be more inclined to spend if they’ve already invested in their day.

Front of house need to be aware of any retail Key Performance Indicators you want them to achieve. This should drive them to upsell and encourage them to keep shelves well stocked and shoppable!

See full presentation: Retail at the Postal Museum