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Why museums need to up their eCommerce game

When you think of online shopping, a museum's gift shop is not the first destination which comes to mind. But with more people than ever shopping online and museums experiencing increasing budget cuts, it is not surprising eCommerce is being considered a channel by institutions to replace lost revenue.

Chris Jones, UX director at eCommerce consultancy, Blueleaf, said while most museums have capabilities for online ticket purchases, the next opportunity is to ramp up direct sales.

"An eCommerce offering to complement their physical shop is the next step and most museums have or are developing this capability," he said. "It can be relatively straightforward to tick these two boxes, but the challenge and great opportunity lies in doing the shop well and capturing every opportunity to develop a growing base of new customers."

Blueleaf has worked with the Tate galleries to improve the user experience of their online shop. Blueleaf introduced UX solutions and an adaptive website so mobile and tablet users can easily shop online.

Clare Kelly, eCommerce manager at Tate, said: "We’re looking forward to seeing an increase in conversion rate, particularly on mobile and tablet. We also hope to see an increase in print sales as we’ll have made our ever-growing selection easier to search and browse."

Meanwhile, Jonathon Jones, eCommerce manager at the British Museum, explained to Essential eCommerce how he joined the institution last year to put the foundations of an eCommerce retailer into a museum environment.

"All museums in the sector have done eCommerce for a while, but it's important that it shouldn't be seen as a secondary function – our eCommerce store should stand out as a reputation of the British Museum."

Jones said the online shop is no longer being seen as less important because of the revenue opportunities it presents.

"We have to compete with other gifting and memorabilia sites to keep those donations coming into the museum, while giving the same personalisation and customer experience," he explained.

But the biggest challenge for museums is to get customers to buy more frequently, rather than only straight after visiting an exhibition in the physical gift shop or online.

"Our loyal customers buy a ticket for every exhibition and the memorabilia, I'm trying to make potential customers understand that while we’re linked to the British Museum our product is unique and the replicas can't be bought elsewhere. It offers a tremendous range for any occasion, not just related to the exhibition."

Blueleaf's Jones noted how museum e-tailers should consider ticket upsells. "What else can museums sell alongside their online ticketing? Guides, books, merchandise, food and drink bookings would all help boost basket sizes."

Jones said museums should also be looking at ways to bring the shop to the exhibition, rather than making visitors exit through the physical store at the end of their journey.

"Imagine you're visiting a really cool dinosaur exhibition and are presented with a kiosk as you move to the next exhibition offering highly relevant dinosaur products, which you can reserve and pick up from the physical store at the end of your visit or get delivered home," he suggested. "This approach of striking whilst the iron is hot could work well for museums."

He also said museums should be using technology more widely throughout the whole exhibition experience, pointing to the Natural History Museum's virtual reality film recreating the ocean environment from 500 million years ago, or the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York asking visitors to wear 3D virtual reality headsets to bring Jackson Pollock's artwork to life.

"The key seems to be respecting the history and authenticity of the subjects, whilst using digital to bring an aspect of entertainment," he said.

"The use of digital in exhibitions will no doubt continue to grow, a key area of opportunity is how to bring eCommerce into the mix. Obvious implementations include tablets in the museum shop and free Wi-Fi throughout the museum so that customers have online access wherever they are to shop if they wish – this also works really well with 'the selfie brigade', which is incredibly popular in museums, where visitors want to share their experience immediately on social media."

Implementing Wi-Fi is something the National Museum of Wales tackled a couple of years ago, in order to encourage visitors to interact with exhibits at the organisation's sites, including Cardiff’s National Museum, the National Slate Museum in North Wales and the open-air St Fagans Natural History Museum.

Dafydd James, head of digital at the National Museum of Wales, said the organisation uses social media to engage with its visitors and offer compelling reasons to visit. A recent campaign surrounded the discovery of a Welsh dinosaur, while another engagement tool is the LambCam in St Fagans which provides a live web feed to keep track of the number of lambs being born in the spring.

But again, a large proportion of the organisation's funding comes from the Welsh Government and with the exhibits being free, the commercial side of the museum is an area James said will continue to grow because of economic pressures.

He said the National Museum of Wales' eCommerce site – which was developed in house and relaunched last year – will move into a small profit by the end of the year.

"We instantly saw a significant difference in the whole website [after relaunch]," he described. "We started putting products on home pages because of the revised structure, and received more traffic to the online shop and it was a much cleaner design, while the photography grew more sales."

The project took a good three years to develop in house and James said the eCommerce team is very small.

"We recently had the busiest Christmas yet," he said. "It was all internal – the fulfilment, marketing –that has been a struggle."

James worries that scaling up marketing may impact the support on sales and potentially introduce technical problems.  

"But we're confident in our fulfilment, we’ve looked at improving stock management, which allows us to be less cautious and knowing what we sold via different channels," he added.

Blueleaf's Jones also commented on the tendency for museums for have small eCommerce teams, but also how they are often separated from the rest of the organisation.

"Some museums – and indeed many companies – find their internal structure results in silos where teams have isolated objectives. Individual and closed-off teams could be working on each of the following: membership growth and retention, donations, ticket sales, offline marketing, online marketing, interactive gallery experiences and ecommerce," he warned.

Jones said with a more joined up-approach, teams can consider the user journey from start to finish.

"They could account for their objectives and the customer’s objectives at each stage from researching the trip, purchasing the tickets to engaging with social media while at an exhibition. The important thing to remember is that the customer only sees one museum brand, whether they’re buying tickets, joining as a member or shopping for products."

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