Museum Retail
Gifts for Special Occasions and Gifts for Anytime

By Carimé Lane
Museums offer glimpses into the past, or escapes into works of art, and, often, plenty of treasures to take home among the quality merchandise available at the museum gift shop. So, for this story, we asked museum store personnel what types of gifts they successfully sell with a higher price point. On the other hand, we also asked them to share items that sell well at any price. Read on for answers from those we interviewed for this article.

Shoppers looking at a display at the Milwaukee Art Museum in Wisconsin. One-of-a-kind glass pieces sell best in the quality gift category for the store. Photo by Matt Haas/Milwaukee Art Museum

Tom Kinsella, retail operations lead visual designer and Adriana Regalado, director of retail operations at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) in Washington, D.C., said jewelry is normally a best-selling expensive gift at their 1,000-square-foot shop. They say that customers are more willing to pay higher price points once they know the story behind the piece.
“Our customers love the range we have, whether it’s for themselves, or gifts for others,” noted Kinsella and Regalado.
With the onset of COVID, the pair noted more customers purchasing expensive home décor items.

Melissa Almeyda, deputy director of The Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation in Fayetteville, N.Y. The gift shop fills a small room at the museum and expensive gifts are books on topics such as race, feminism, and indigenous influence.

The NMWA’s customers love good quality, said Kinsella and Regalado. And they buy their products from female artists and designers who put forth a lot of effort to craft a quality product. The key to cultivating an interest in these quality items, then, is exposing customers to these items through careful buying and visual merchandising, Kinsella and Regalado said.
The Matilda Joslyn Gage Center in Fayetteville, N.Y., pays tribute to the social justice activist, Matilda Joslyn Gage. Melissa Almeyda, deputy director of The Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation, said expensive gifts are their books on topics such as race, feminism and indigenous influence. Other best-selling gift items include: potholders/hand towels with the saying, “The sign of a kindhearted woman,” and their Matilda Rose soaps, crafted by Syracuse Soapworks and custom labeled with Matilda’s embroidery designs.

Almeyda said that the best avenue for growth in higher priced merchandise would involve the expansion of their book selection, and developing more Matilda-customized merchandise like wineglasses and teacups.
Karen McNeely, director of retail operations at the 1,500-square-foot Milwaukee Art Museum store in Wisconsin said statement one-of-a-kind glass pieces are their best-selling quality gift. These pieces can range anywhere from small pieces going for around $18, to masterpieces worth thousands of dollars. The sweet spot, McNeely said, is in the $200 to $400 range

These glass pieces work well for corporate gifts, business customers, and can suit any gender. They’re also elevated in taste, says McNeely.
Purchases of quality gifts are holding steady for now, she added.
“Obviously, there’s some people that are really hurting this year and it’s difficult because they might be out of work and it might be insensitive to give them an expensive gift that’s not functional,” said McNeely. “But then there are some more willing to spend money on gifts this year, because the pandemic is making them feel more grateful for the people who are in their lives, and want to express that more.”
 In the 196-square-foot gift shop at the International Women’s Air & Space Museum in Cleveland, Ohio, Heather Alexander, executive director, said that best-selling merchandise tends to be on the lower priced side of things. Books, covering a range of aviation-related themes are the most expensive types of merchandise they sell. Books by Sarah Rickman, who has written extensively about the women Airforce service pilots of World War II, sell well, as do books covering Amelia Erhardt. Books on hot topics, like Mercury 13, are also among the top sellers. Alexander said they have tried to bring in some higher-end merchandise in the past, but it hasn’t gone over for their market at the museum.

Tom Kinsella, retail operations lead visual designer, and Adriana Regalado, director of retail operations, at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) in Washington, D.C. Jewelry is a best-selling expensive gift at the store.

Similarly, at the 600-square-foot Rock ‘N Soul Museum in Memphis, Tenn., items with lower price points do best. For instance, CD box sets, (usually the best of or top 10 in any genre) ranging from $40 to $60 and containing three to five CDs are very popular. The museum’s main demographic is 50 and older, said Pam Hetsel Parham, director of the museum, which explains why the museum is still selling CDs. Some buy the CDs because they want to keep listening to the tunes they heard throughout the museum, while others buy them as gifts, said Hetsel Parham. “It’s about 50/50 on that,” she said. Sweatshirts, also within the same price range, are purchased often as well.
Hetsel Parham indicated that they have trialed higher ticket items, like guitars, and higher end apparel, but those haven’t done too well for them. Hetsel Parham speculated that these products are maybe too big to pack in a suitcase to take back home (in the past, 35 per cent of the museum’s visitors has been international). As well, items like guitars may not have sold well because they are a specialty item.


Best-Selling Gift Items at Any Price

Buttons on a cork board at The Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation’s gift store in Fayetteville, N.Y. The best-selling gift at any price is a toss-up between pins, buttons and postcards. And on the store’s equal pay merchandise table, items for men are $1, while items for women are $79 cents.

Retail Operations Lead Visual Designer Tom Kinsella and Director of Retail Operations Adriana Regalado of the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) in Washington, D.C., said masks are the top sellers now. They collaborated with a Chicana artist to create designs for the masks, and report this collaboration has been a huge success.
“Masks have become a product that customers buy for one another now,” said Kinsella and Regalado, “[They’re] definitely going to be a big holiday gift giving item this year.” The two added that socks are always a great seller for them as well.
At Matilda Joslyn Gage Center shop in Fayetteville, N.Y., Deputy Director Melissa Almeyda said the best-selling gift at any price is a “toss-up between our pins/buttons and postcards.” She said the popularity of these items is likely due to their moderate pricing and the ease with which they can be gifted and shared.
The buttons/pins feature sayings relevant to social justice issues, with statements like: ‘Girls Can Do Anything,’ ‘Black Lives Matter’ and ‘Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History.’  “Similarly, the postcards are carefully cultivated to address those same issues,” Almeyda said.
Scarves are a best-seller at the Milwaukee Art Museum in Wisconsin. They’re sold at a variety of price points, starting from $20. McNeely pointed out that guests can pick up several of these for a number of people on their gift list. For instance, said Director of Retail Operations Karen McNeely, customers can pick up a few scarves to give to each of their daughters and daughters-in-law. While each daughter may be getting the same gift, each scarf is different, and can be personalized to suit each daughter’s style or looks.
At the International Women’s Air & Space Museum in Cleveland, Ohio, logoed mugs and wine glasses go over well. Limited edition decks of cards featuring female astronauts, NASA and space engineers created especially for the museum are popular items, too. As well, small toy airplanes are a great gift item–a grandmother may buy a few for her as gifts for her grandchildren, Executive Director Heather Alexander said.
Over at the Rock ‘N Soul museum, shot glasses are often purchased as gifts for others. Retailing at $8, 11-by-14 cardboard-backed posters featuring a generic blues artist or musician on it are easy to throw in a suitcase or a bag, making them a great gift buy, too. And guitar picks, with the Rock ‘N Soul logo printed on them, are the best-sellers of them all.

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