Heritage retail: New life for a museum shop

  • Design
  • June 7, 2017
  • Courtney Devereux
Heritage retail: New life for a museum shop

The Auckland War Memorial Museum’s new in-house retail store has opened to enthusiastic customers and impressive numbers after a bold facelift that’s boosted transactions by 79 percent.

The museum has stood proudly since 1929. Its 160 square metre store has been redesigned and refurbished to fit with its classic feel while maintaining a retail presence that can’t be passed up by the 900,000 visitors who passed through the museum’s doors last year.

The new-look museum store boasts a modern yet culturally-inspired design executed in meticulous detail by Ellery Muir Associates. 

The museum originally had two stores: one in the grand foyer, which has now been refurbished; and a smaller one, down by the café on the other side of the building. Neither was performing well pre-makeover.

The renovation project was masterminded by Lisa Donaldson, a retail experience strategist from The Retail Collective who was tasked with repositioning of the two stores to better target the intended audience. 

“In addition to that, we were briefed on refreshing the merchandising, fixtures and layout to support a wider range of products in each sub-category and developing branded signage and ticketing templates to showcase feature products and artist information,” says Donaldson.

As the museum's goal was to increase foot traffic to one store rather than two, Ellery Muir Associates also realigned the entrance to increase profile and visibility from the entrance and exits, and improve the overall first impression of the store.

According to Donaldson, the two old stores had a range of problems which fell into three key areas.

“Visibility: both sites had poor exposure and limited external branding or window areas. Poor customer experience: the fit outs were dated and there was no storytelling or opportunities for customers to engage on a more emotional level and split range; and focus: neither site was doing justice to the complete customer offer.”

Laura Huang, Auckland War Memorial Museum’s senior sales lead, says that the original plan for two museum stores came from the idea that double stores would equal double revenue. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.

“Getting rid of the old store was revenue driven… [the original] thinking was that double spaces would be earning double, but obviously, that didn’t happen.”

The now-singular museum store’s new look is an example of hard work and dedication as the style of the area reflects both a retail sector and a tribute to the heritage of the space.

Its black ceiling creates a feeling of space and height within the retail store, while white walls sporting a Māori-inspired frieze stream from the entrance to the far back, the same pattern which is carved into the side of the foyer walls. Statement blocks of back-lit bright blue stand out against neutral colors to create a modern yet sophisticated feel. 

The new store has been renovated to create space and symmetry. An old office on the left-hand side has been pushed back to accommodate the new Māori cultural wing, while the glass alleyway at the back of the store has also been pushed back to provide more room for the striking illuminated white wall.

Storage has been moved front and centre to the store, but you won’t see it, as all the new shelving units, each styled to fit in with the collection it holds, have been raised and designed to hold stock underneath them without being seen by customers.

Huang appreciates this design, saying when visitors are shopping “no one wants to bend down.”

The back-lit display shelving that covers the whole back section of the store is filled with New Zealand-made glass vases and treasures. The color from the glass is juxtaposed against the white walls to create a strong visual impact for those entering the store.

The Māori cultural wing includes traditional artwork held on matte black shelving with another illuminated white wall behind drawing attention to the finer details. A large wooden table stands proudly in the middle of the wing stocked with more cultural goods it creates a flow through the area. 

Foyer shop sales for the museum have risen 88 percent since the year ending 2014, and visitation in the store is also up 32 percent.

Megan McSweeney, Auckland War Memorial Museum’s director of business, external affairs, and tourism, says that prior to its renovation, the store was reflecting the museum a little too closely.

The last time the foyer store got refurbished was 11 years ago in 2006. But with consideration to budget and the factoring in of heritage building requirements the new store was quickly underway.

“[Both stores] were very outdated [with regards to] fit-out. We undertook some customer research and it came back to us saying [customers] didn’t feel very welcome. There was too many ‘don’t touch’ signs and the store felt like a museum itself. Mothers with prams and small children said they didn’t feel welcome.”

McSweeney says although the new-look store now supports the local community, both the older stores and their products “weren’t true to a museum store.” They were often supplied by international manufacturers and artists and often felt “souveniry.”

“With the research we did, we pulled apart the numbers and we found that Aucklanders were about 60 percent of our entire customer base, but were only 20 percent of the customer base within our retail sector. We knew from our analysis how much Aucklanders were willing to spend, and we knew international tourists would spend more.”

McSweeney says international tourism is a key market within their operations. The team had a “dual dichotomy of price points” that reflected the new targets within the market for both domestic and international shoppers.

“Our international tourists are 36 percent [of visitors], but they were creating 80 percent of the revenue. So, there was a need for a whole product revitalisation and there was a need for the shops to be refurbished. We looked at the labor model and found that we were employing two lots of staff,” says McSweeney.

Through a simple business analysis, McSweeney created a more effective labor model for the new store that cut staff costs in half while employing more people who would work fewer collective hours.

The museum has often prided itself on its ability to exhibit New Zealand culture and local artisans, using culture as inspiration. Since the opening of the store, the number of transactions is up an impressive 79 percent.

The use of stock reflecting the collections in the museum has created an experience which allows customers to feel as if they can be part of the museum's inspirations. The store offers a wide range of traditional Māori art and carvings while also featuring classic war memorial items such as poppy lapel pins and poppy glass ornaments.

The new store has a large range of interactive items which are irresistible to want to grab or sample -only this time you can. With pure New Zealand wool and fine art prints almost everywhere you look it’s expected for customers to treat the store as you would any retail environment.

The new retail model also includes pop-up stores located within the latest exhibitions or collections. The first of these is a stall at the Volume exhibition which covers the history of New Zealand music.

Each pop-up store offers themed collectibles that correlate with the exhibit. For example, the Volume pop-up merchandise vendor stocks pillows with popular New Zealand music quotes and dining plates made to look like old records.  

“Since Lisa has been onsite [the store] has evolved considerably,” says Sweeney. “What we wanted to create was a curated museum store, something that was different.”

Lisa Varga, retail operations manager, was the catalyst for the store's update and has dedicated herself to ensuring the store reflects the museum's authentic model.

“There is a story behind everything we do. We work with a lot of little artists but people who are authentic. Supporting New Zealand artisans is really important to us.”

One of the main goals of the shop is to support the museum’s role as a war memorial, and in doing so, reflect New Zealand’s culture. The new product range has been diversified to cover a variety of price points to suit all those who entered, without compromising quality or sacrificing the store's integrity.

Varga says the museum team emphasises the fact that customers’ money goes back into the community, which in turn helps to grow the collections.

 “Basically our conversation rates and operating surplus have quadrupled since 2015,” says Varga. “We do a lot of exhibition merchandise using inspirations from the collections as much as we can.”

Lisa Donaldson and her team were also tasked with upskilling the store's team, finding them new ways to merchandise and present the updated range. As the retail store is a big contributor to the museum’s revenue the staff, many of whom are bilingual, have been trained to be able to talk about the products and share their stories with customers.

Donaldson says that the new store offers a better experience all round for customers.

“It is fresh and vibrant, much easier and more pleasurable to shop due to the store layout being more effectively zoned. Now, local product and artists are showcased much more effectively. There is something for everyone.”

Even as a regular visitor of the museum, the opportunity to be surrounded by some of New Zealand’s finest artistic pieces is not one to be passed up.  

This story originally appeared in NZ Retail magazine issue 749 April / May 2017

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