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Museum Shops Exhibit Growing Interest in Online Possibilities

Internet: Despite tepid sales, most sites are regarded as invaluable promotional tools. Even the Louvre has gone digital.


Even repositories of the past can be up on the latest business strategy of the present.

In growing numbers, museums across Southern California and the rest of the nation are venturing into online retail as a means of garnering more revenue and boosting their profile among potential visitors, patrons and buyers of Impressionist prints, abstract coffee mugs and other museum store fare.

Most of these online ventures are outgrowths of long-established museum gift shops, and like many "bricks-and-mortar" businesses that have begun selling their goods on the Web, these "marble-and-mortar" stores have for the most part seen only modest returns from their Internet efforts.

Museum officials blame the sluggish sales largely on the greenness of their online retailing operations and a stubborn reluctance among many in their traditional constituency to shop on the Web.

"We know that 50% of our customers are not comfortable with making any Web transactions," said Lilly Stamets, president of the western chapter of the Museum Store Assn., which includes 40 museum shops from Southern California among its worldwide membership of roughly 1,800.

Yet despite tepid sales, these Internet shopping sites are already considered invaluable marketing tools. Even if no purchase is made, a visit to a museum's retail Web page can still plant the seed for future visits to the museum and its on-site gift shop, and even return visits to the cyber-store.

"Having one more thing for the search engines to find is very helpful," said Jo Valiulis, museum store manager for the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles, whose Web site ( presents an overview of the museum. Viewers' only option to purchase items is to fax or call in orders.

As many as 15 cultural institutions in the region--including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the Huntington Library, and the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA)--now boast Internet retail sites selling everything from books, posters and souvenirs to one-of-a-kind artworks and jewelry.

Nationally, and internationally, the trend is also picking up steam. Arlington, Mass.-based has a roster of 40 museums, among them LACMA, the British Museum and the Louvre, for which it designs and operates online shopping sites together offering more than 3,500 retail items. Given growing interest in such online services, company founder and President Rebecca Reynolds Moore predicts her client list will grow to 100 within the next 12 months. "If you're in the retail business, you feel like you're left out if you don't have some kind of online presence," she said.

Museum store wares--which because of their connection to history or fine art have been called by some in the industry "cultural produce"--are seen as perfect offerings for online retail given that most Web surfers tend to be well-educated and financially well off, a consumer base likely possessed of worldly tastes and the cash to satisfy them.

Online venues for this cultural produce, however, can run the gamut from technologically sophisticated to rudimentary. MOCA, for example, offers secured, interactive credit card shopping through Santa Monica-based Web agent Image Exchange, which operates sites for a dozen museums and individual artists. Meanwhile, the Huntington Library has opted for what is essentially a home-spun electronic catalog followed by instructions for fax or telephone ordering.

David Crocker, the Huntington's bookstore operations and merchandising manager, called the site "a quick paste-up" aimed at giving museum officials time to examine options for creating a secured, fully interactive site with a broader variety of products.

Indeed, many museum store mangers consider their current sites crude place savers to be replaced by improved, more appealing Web pages as soon as possible. They see the Internet as a dominant force in the future of retailing and want to be sure they get in on the ground floor with some type of presence no matter how makeshift.

"The handwriting was on the wall that that was the place to be and the thing to do," said Jay Aldrich at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage, whose Web store accounts for only about 1% of all the museum's retail sales. "If you're not a part of it, you just get lost in the shuffle." Aldrich would not reveal retail revenue figures for the museum.

Although some surveys indicate that one-third of all museum-goers make purchases averaging at least $20 at on-site gift shops, gross sales at these retail outlets generally account for no more than 7% of a museum's overall annual revenue, according to Washington-based American Assn. of Museums.

Museums hope successful Internet retail operations can help boost that percentage, AAM President Ed Abel said, especially in an age when more museums are chasing harder-to-come-by corporate sponsorships and public grants. "Every museum is looking to diversify its revenue base," he said. "They can't rely on only one source."

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