Visiting For The Gift Shop

Whenever I have visited a museum that forces you to go through the gift shop before you can exit, I have viewed the design as a cynical cash grab. As I think about it, while I have frequently purchased gifts for others at museums, they weren’t institutions that forced you to exit through their retail spaces.

So it was with interest and curiosity that I read Colleen Dilenschneider’s post about the strong link between museum gift shops and museum memberships.  This is definitely not something I had considered before. If you have a gallery or museum type organization, take a close read of her piece because she includes a number of caveats about reading the results in a certain manner which I am definitely not going be able to accurately reflect here.

Dilenschneider suggests that museum retail may be a strong element in re-engaging with members and the community at large in the post-Covid next normal. Many lapsed members intend to renew next time they visit and members are 15% more likely to have first visited the museum for the gift shop than non-members. So the retail space may be what draws lapsed members back first.

One thing she mentions is that gifting objects from museum retail spaces are often closely tied to self-image.

Critically, we know that people believe that visiting a museum makes them better friends, neighbors, and parents. Purchasing an item from the gift shop can reinforce perceptions that someone is the type of person who supports their community by way of supporting an organization, purchases unique gifts for friends and family, and leaves their home to have educational experiences. This factor may be even stronger for members.

While she can not definitively say self-image is stronger motivator for members, data shows that members make purchases from museum gift shops in higher percentages than non-members and tend to spend more on those purchases than non-members.

The fact that they may get a discount is ranked relatively low in importance as membership benefit.

Members consider benefits such as supporting the organization, free admission, priority access, and positively impacting the museum’s mission significantly more important. Nearly a quarter of members are having a retail interaction. Instead of assuming they’re there for the discount, consider that those interactions can be an important touchpoint of engagement for strengthening this community of supporters.

On the question of “Are members important to retail or is retail important to members?” Dilenschneider says that there are myriad interrelated factors comprising the museum experience. People’s motivations shouldn’t reduced to a single simple question. Rather as she mentions in the last line quoted above, museums/galleries should focus on using the retail touchpoint to deepen relationships with members and an opportunity to potentially cultivate non-members into members.

While Dilenschneider provides examples of two museums that do encourage membership sign ups in their retail spaces, I suspect this might be accomplished in well-designed, soft-sell manner. I am just thinking about all the stories of people who attended a performance once and resented being barraged by phone calls and mailings about subscribing and donating.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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