Exit Through the Gift Shop

A museum merchandiser talks about her biggest challenges, the Brexit effect, and more

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May 9, 2019

Featured artists


Edvard Munch

Katsushika Hokusai

With products selling anywhere from “10 pence all the way up to £3,500,” the shops at the British Museum boast an offering as diverse as the museum itself. With eight million works, and six million visitors annually, the museum not only has one of the world’s largest permanent collections, it’s one of the most visited. It has a long history to thank; established in 1753, it was the world’s first public national museum.

To get a first-hand account of how a museum shop works, we tapped merchandiser Chelsey Campbell to give us the lowdown.

British Museum merchandiser Chelsey Campbell

What exactly does a “merchandiser” at an art (or, in the case of the British Museum, a “world history”) museum do?

A merchandiser supports the buying team by managing the day-to-day stock flow and intake. Once new lines have come into the business, we review performance and place rebuys where needed. Liaising with our suppliers is important in order to build relationships with key vendors and ensure orders are delivered on time. I also run ad hoc reports to analyse performance, particularly every 6 months when we conduct a full review.

What differentiates the shop at the British Museum from those at other museums?

The British Museum offers a lot more choice than other museums. We have four core shops within the museum, plus two exhibition shops that may be open at the time. We cater to all different types of clientele and range products from as little as 10 pence all the way up to £3,500!

The exterior of the Reading Room, in the Great Court.

The British Museum’s features a broad array of exhibitions—art, history, culture, and everything in between. How do you represent such a diverse offering in the shop?

In our Collection shop, we deliver ranges that are based on items currently or previously on display. We tend to focus on artefacts and themes that the museum is well known for, such as the Rosetta stone (which is our largest and best performing range), Hokusai’s The Great Wave, and the Lewis chessmen. Our exhibition shops will always have several ranges based on key aspects featured, allowing the customer to come away from the museum with a memento of their time spent here.

How much does what’s on sale match the current exhibition?

It will vary by exhibition, but currently for Edvard Munch around 50% of what’s on offer uses imagery directly from what is on display. In fact we have three British Museum developed ranges—Head by Head, The Scream, and The Sun. The buyers will also source branded products that tie in with the overall theme to ensure we are offering the customer a wide range of products.

The Fall of the Damned (Study)Peter Paul Rubens
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What is the biggest challenge for the shop on a day-to-day basis? On a more longer term basis (i.e. quarterly)?

On a day-to-day basis the biggest challenge for us is having no flexibility with our already small stock room space, therefore we need to be mindful of how many deliveries we receive each day which can become difficult during peak trading. Regarding long term, at the moment our biggest challenge is Brexit. Not only does the uncertainty affect our visitor numbers, but, due to exchange rates dropping, we have also been faced with huge increases in our costs, as have other retailers, whilst customers become ever more price sensitive.

What is the one thing about the shop that the general public would be most surprised to learn?

I think it would probably be that we can have in excess of 3,000 different products (excluding books and postcards) in the shops at any one time, and this is all managed by a very small team including an in-house design team who create ranges that are based on the collection.

Standard of Ur ("Peace")Unknown
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What is the most interesting thing you have learned in your tenure at The British Museum?

What amazed me the most is that we have customers from all over the world who will spend thousands of pounds on a piece of jewellery, a bronze replica, or even a crystal vase. Previously my idea of museum shopping was buying low cost souvenirs but now I understand how diverse our customers and their needs are.

Can you name one item that has sold surprisingly well? How about one item that surprisingly hasn’t sold well?

In our previous exhibition, ‘I Object,’ curated by Iain Hislop, we had the Peckham Rock by Banksy on display and the team developed a wooden postcard replica which sold for £3.99. It sold out within the first weekend of opening and people were selling them on eBay for £40 and up! A further 14,000 Banksy postcards were bought to be sold in the exhibition shop.

A line that did not sell well as expected was our Egyptian Snow Globe that was developed for our Sunken Cities exhibition in 2016. Egyptian products sell very well for us, as does our British Museum Snow Globe, but to have a pyramids surrounded by snow must have been very confusing for the customer!

To explore the British Museum Shop’s online offerings, visit britishmuseumshoponline.org.

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The British Museum: Curated Picks

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