As I was watching television last Sunday evening, amongst all the Christmas ads, up popped my new favourite: Visa’s ‘support your local high street’ campaign. My new favourite ad because, much to my joy, it literally features two of my local stores in Primrose Hill. One of them is my local green grocer who, like me, is a Manchester United fan. Each week, as I’m selecting the best fruit and veg from his wicker baskets, we moan about Jose and long for Zenidine!
Appropriately enough, I do try to buy many of my Christmas gifts from the local high street whenever I can, and I am fortunate that Primrose Hill is such a fantastic place to do it. I love it for two key reasons: first, as I’ve said so many times, the immersive, experiential aspect of shopping is so important, which, in this case, comes from an attachment to the area and personal relationships with shopkeepers that have been built up over decades. Secondly, what could be better than buying gifts one cannot get anywhere else?
Of course, creating a unique and memorably retail experience – and even a sense of belonging – doesn’t have to be limited to shopping locally. Who can forget the shopping experience at Colette in Paris? Year in, year out, it continued to delight, even amuse, customers, browsers and passers-by.
Nearly a year on since Colette closed its doors in Rue St Honore, I have been thinking about what other kinds of stores lay quietly offering a similar kind of experience behind crowds of tourists. The answer, I am increasingly realising, is museum and gallery shops.
The great public institutions that have traditionally been able to rely on government and arts council funding are increasingly needing to find ways to become more self-sufficient. The best museums around the world have cottoned on that their shops can not only act as windows to the broader museum, but also they can be really interesting and generate meaningful income.
Combining innovative products and merchandise linked to specific exhibitions, museum shops offer customers something special and unique that can’t be replicated elsewhere, often in a thought-provoking or inspiring setting.
Doubling down on the exclusivity, more and more artists are being asked to make limited edition works for a show, whichare usually snapped up – often at the opening and there has become a roaring trade in the secondary market. Recently Grayson Perry had a show at the Serpentine Gallery. His limited edition of 100 works sold out on the night and they are now changing hands on various websites for £6,500.
This year, the Royal Academy of Arts is celebrating its 250-year anniversary with a transformational redesign of its buildings, including the launch of a brand new retail space. Originally, the RA was created to be a meeting place for artists, and for them to train professionally. Presented through two galleries, there’s a wide range of inspirational books and works of art to explore – perfect for rare finds and one-off Christmas gifts.
Currently, the Oceania exhibition is on which is mirrored in the shop with a diverse collection celebrating the arts of Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia, encompassing the vast Pacific region from New Guinea to Easter Island, Hawaii to Aotearoa (New Zealand). From original artworks, to notebooks and postcards to unique contemporary jewellery or the finest traditional weaving, the choice and range are as diverse as the region itself.
The RA’s best-selling items included a framed poster by David Hockney RA, a scarf designed by Barbara Rae RA, and Mr Darcy cufflinks.
Its more recent ranges tap into its visitor’s desire to purchase their own piece of art. Homeware inspired by the work of Mary Fedden RA; limited edition cushions with designs by Academicians, produced in collaboration with Liberty; and streetwear inspired by the paintings of Rose Wylie RA are all featured in the RA’s shops.
Two miles down the road, part of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s mission is to display the best examples of art and design. The redesign of its museum shop, which was unveiled in May, hopes to do just that while demonstrating exemplary design and decoration.
With the revamp of its retail space the V&A – the world’s largest museum of decorative arts and design – aims to draw the attention of the 4.4 million visitors who pass through its doors each year. Home to the works of the world’s most influential designers, diversifying and increasing commercial funding is one of the V&A’s strategic objectives.
Likewise, museums around the world have demonstrated their creative flair through retail.New York’s Museum of Modern Art critiques new products against a set of design filters and then then has them evaluated by its curatorial department. Marseille’s Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations has committed to changing its retail ranges based on the season. Going beyond generic souvenirs, the Palais de Tokyo in Paris doubles as a library dedicated to the visual arts.
Even for smaller museums, their shops not only provide an opportunity to increase revenue but also the chance to create unique products and experiences for visitors keen to find out more about collections and take away something not available on the high street.
The shop at the National Centre for Craft and Design in Sleaford, Lincolnshire has transformed into a hub for local makers and craft enthusiasts as well as being a place to buy quality gifts, many of which have been produced by the makers who are exhibited in its galleries.
The general idea is to view an exhibition and exit through the gift shop. For me, I always start at the gift shop. I can never wait!