By Karen Appold
Quality gifts at museum shops are often one-of-a-kind handmade items that command a higher price tag. For Cynthia D. Nelson, gift shop manager and volunteer at the Dubuque Museum of Art in Dubuque, Iowa, blown-glass three-spot tumblers and owl goblets created by a torch, known as lamp-worked or flame-worked glass, by Glenn Lyons of Port Townsend, Wash., are popular quality gift items. “These pieces are unusual for the Midwest; we are thrilled to be the only gift shop offering them outside of the Pacific Northwest,” she said. “Patrons appreciate these handmade items and willingly pay a premium to have such useful and lovely works of art in their homes.”
Regarding expensive items, Lisa Fricker, director of operations – retail, Field Museum, Chicago, Ill., said her shop offers a variety of high-end jewelry as well as culturally driven gift items from around the world. “They sell well in relation to the amount we carry,” she said. More unique gift pieces are based on its Native American handmade section.
Heidi Norton, museum shop manager, Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, N.H., said top-selling expensive items include ceramics, decorative glass, handcrafted jewelry, tiles, paperweights, handcrafted glass vases and bowls. As the only museum to own two of Frank Lloyd Wright’s houses that are open to the public for tours, Wright-related items are also highly sought offer. Popular choices include chess sets, home accessories, pillows, throws, lighting and wearables.
The 4,000-square-foot gift shop at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Okla., has the largest selection of Native American jewelry in the state of Oklahoma, said Laney Carey, manager. It’s all the rage with customers.
Home Décor at All Price Points
At the small shop at the Dubuque Museum of Art, $12 tea towels designed and fabricated by a local vendor sell like hotcakes. They feature quotes by Picasso, Twila Tharp, Claude Monet and others. “We’re always looking for new quotes to add to our repertoire,” Nelson said.
In the home décor category, Fricker offers prints, figurines, vases, blankets, pillows and cultural collectibles. Price ranges from $19.99 to $999.99. “These items give guests a variety of unique options to enhance their shopping experience, but this category doesn’t drive our overall business,” she said.
Home décor items are priced between $25 and $5,000 at the Currier Museum of Art shop. The latter price tag is unusual; those items are tied to an exhibition. Typically, high-end items are priced between $250 and $300. Examples include hand-blown glass paperweights, Wright glass votives, statuary, signs, wind chimes and linens. This category also includes items made by local artisans such as hand-blown glass vases, bowls, birds, ceramic ware and tiles.
The National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum sells a large variety of home goods, from tea towels for $10 to Kilim pillows for $150. “Our home goods sell well; we bring in moderately priced items that many people enjoy in their homes,” Carey said.
Sources of Merchandise
Norton usually researches merchandise purchases six months to a year in advance. The purchases are made to complement a special exhibition or the museum’s collection. She has developed relationships with several outstanding reps, who understand the museum’s targeted purchasing goals.
“I receive a list from the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation regarding which companies are licensed and what I can purchase from them,” Norton said. “I attend gift and craft shows, and visit other museums and stores to see what is trending and selling.”
Norton receives lots of emails from artisans and companies, both locally and worldwide. “Sometimes the timing is perfect, and items fit in well with purchases for a specific exhibit,” she said. “I also ask staff to keep an eye out when they are visiting other museum shops in other states and countries. I like to think we are all buyers for the museum. I take everyone’s suggestions and filter them to fit our needs.” The shop has 1,400 square feet—700 inside the store and 700 in front of the store in the lobby space.
Fricker uses a variety of vendors from several sources. “We try to include a good mix of minority and women-owned businesses and we also carry brands with the same initiatives that we believe in at the Field Museum,” she said. She attends trade shows including NY Now, NY Toy Fair, Santa Fe Indian Market and the Las Vegas Souvenir & Resort Gift Show. She also sources merchandise from Faire, Etsy and local Chicago gift markets.
Nelson purchases most merchandise either through artists she’s met locally or online through vendors who provide complementary items for museum gift shops.
Carey and her team attend trade shows such as the Dallas Gift Market and WESA Market. “We have fantastic working relationships with our sales reps; several of them come to our store to present lines to us,” she said. “Attending trade shows is a great way to find hidden gems, and bring something new into our store.”
As the gift shop manager, Nelson devotes a lot of time to creating displays. This can be challenging, because the shop is only about 200 square feet. “We are often able to spread our wears into the museum’s lobby area,” she said. “We try to change displays often and use unusual visuals.” The shop’s gross income for 2019 was between MultiMedia Medical LLC15,000 and $20,000.
Fricker keeps the most expensive pieces in glass display cases positioned throughout the store. “Within each case we use appropriate props and lighting to make sure pieces appeal to the eye,” she said. “We incorporate signage with products that explain a collection’s origin and how it relates to the museum’s collection.” Its main store is 5,000 square feet. The museum has seven shops, which garner more than $5 million annually.
“We are lucky to have a wall of glass shelves that beautifully highlight our glass and ceramic items,” Norton said. Jewelry is in lighted glass cases, filled with black stones that create an interesting background for displays. Some larger pieces are on display in the lobby area of the shop on pedestals.
Carey, who has an interior design degree, strives to make the store inviting. She creates displays that show customers how a product will work in their home. Displays incorporate a variety of products that all fit into the same theme or purpose.