Search Museum Next

Has digital widened participation by reaching new retail audiences?

By November 2020 internet sales accounted for 36% of retail in the UK, compared to 19.1% in February 2020. While internet sales, predictably, peaked during national lockdowns, the surging popularity of online shopping has left many wondering which habits will stick – and which online audiences are here to stay.

Online retail has offered a much-needed income stream for the museum sector during the pandemic. But how feasible is online retail for museums in the long term? Ecommerce requires resources which could be a step too far for stretched teams, now that venues have reopened.

And are audiences likely to stay online? In 2020, Emarketer predicted that pandemic levels of online spending would dip considerably once the country opened back up, suggesting that ‘In fact, as the market rights itself, 2021 will see a 6.3% decline in UK retail ecommerce sales. It will take a few years for the retail ecommerce sales total to reach 2020’s height. But when they do in 2023, the numbers will be well in excess of anything pre-pandemic, at £143.51 billion ($183.17 billion).’

So, what should museums keep in mind when considering ongoing online retail efforts?

NEMO suggests that the data here is lacking. ‘Of the responding museums, 93% have increased or started online services during the pandemic’, they state in their January 2021 survey, ‘However, almost 40% of the museums responded that they either did not track or did not know about the development of their online visitor numbers, which points to a lack of digital measurement frameworks and methods.’

But for the many museum shops that sell art and craft, there have been some compelling studies from which to draw.

Let’s look at art collecting first.

Art collecting 2021

Art Collecting 2021: An Artsy Report was released at the end of June 2021, and gives us some excellent insights into how the market has shifted during the last year.

The key takeaway from this report is that now, ‘every art collector is an online art collector’. They found that significantly more collectors had purchased online at least once in the last year (83% compared to 64% in 2019), but also that online had a key role in driving offline sales. Two-thirds of their respondents reported that they had found an artwork online, and then went on to buy it in person.

An impressive proportion of these artworks had been discovered through online marketplaces – with a smaller chunk being found through social media. So, online retail can offer significant opportunities for extending reach and building collaborative networks.

Artsy also took a look in detail at the habits of new collectors – specifically those that have made their first significant purchases ($10,000 +) in the last four years. What encourages these new buyers to enter the market? And what might they be looking for in future?

These new, ‘Next-Gen’ collectors were more likely to use social media to seek out new artworks, and 90% were buying art online (compared to 80% for all collectors).

Intriguingly, Artsy suggests that these trends are not provoked by the pandemic – rather ‘millennials became the art market’s biggest spenders for the first time in 2020, putting a generation that came of age with the internet in the driver’s seat.’

And so, it looks like online art collecting is firmly here to stay – and could be useful for developing profile and engagement, as well as offering a useful long term retail income for museums.

Photo by Michal Matlon

The market for craft

The Craft Council’s ‘The Market For Craft’ report offers us a different viewpoint.

This report was written in April 2020, so is a snapshot of the market in the early period of the pandemic.

However, like Artsy, The Crafts Council found that there was a clear shift towards digital and that this was likely unrelated to the wider move to online retail in the pandemic.

‘There is a growing new generation of younger craft consumers. Savvy buyers, they like collecting and know what they want. They represent a significant shift in patterns of consumption, as craft becomes more mainstream.’

Online retailers such as Esty and Not On The High Street have had a pivotal role in changing the landscape of craft retail, yet while they make it increasingly accessible the report found that even in the most digitally engaged audience segments, buying face-to-face was a top priority. Digital helps to tell their stories, but buying from real people was of key importance.

‘The growth in the public’s desire for authenticity, for experiences, for ethical and sustainable consumption have helped fuel an interest in making and in handmade objects.’ the report details, ‘Further impetus comes from a concern for wellness and mindfulness, as well as the growing need to switch-off from electronic devices.’

‘Another change – although one much more difficult to quantify’ the report continues, ‘is the role online platforms have had in developing the relationships between consumers, makers and the stories behind the objects they create.’

Stores of stories

Buyers are interested in the real-life stories of their purchases, and by building connections, storytelling and championing causes we can add value to our products. Digital offers us the ideal platform to explore these narratives, in a myriad of new and captivating ways.

Curator: The Museum Journal reflected on retail as a vehicle for patronage, saying ‘The COVID crisis has changed collectors’ reasons for buying. Now, many buyers want to help the struggling arts scene through the pandemic. Supporting artists, through social impact and patronage, ranked as the second biggest reason when buying art online (68%).’ and vitally – ‘This motivation was particularly strong among the under-35s, over three-quarters (76%) of whom said this was their main reason, as well as new collectors (79%)’ (King et al, 2020).

Blooloop suggested that a key trend in retail for cultural attractions is likely to be cause-related shopping, ‘Think sustainable products and purpose-driven brands that give back to society and help protect the environment. These will continue to be a priority for visitors. Now more than ever, consumers want to feel good about who they buy from. They want to help make a difference.’

So what next for retail audiences?

The surge in online retail was caused by the pandemic closure of physical stores (the ONS reported that for existing online-only retail, sales stayed flat), and while there is a large appetite for real-life experiences, the online shopping habits that we have established over the last year seem set to stay.

By viewing online retailing not just as an income stream, but as a storytelling and engagement opportunity, museums can maximise their work and encourage further real-life interactions.

And by continuing to invest in online retail, museums can ensure that they engage with emerging millennial buyers. By building these relationships with audiences that can potentially grow with the museum, they can help to ensure a sustainable future.

About the author – Rebecca Hardy Wombell

Rebecca Hardy Wombell is a freelance writer who works with a broad range of creative organisations, including artists, galleries, museums and design-led retailers.

Her writing aims to develop and delight audiences by putting her clients’ beautiful works to well-crafted words.

Subscribe to the latest museum thinking

Fresh ideas from museums around the globe in your inbox each week