What Retail Can Learn from Museums : Pt 1



Creatives like to think of ourselves as art-fluent and ethereal, floating through the world plucking ideas out of nowhere that mere mortals can’t access – seemingly drawing inspiration out of thin air. While some of these ideas blossom, others wither on the vine, and still others fail to even take root or grow at all.

For retailers, the merchandise is your medium and your retail space becomes the canvas for the story you create for your clientele. If your process isn’t solid, it’s your bottom line that suffers. So from a business perspective, how can you build a solid process that takes you from idea to revenue?

Museums haven’t flourished for over 3,000 years due to serendipity. As they have evolved, they have mastered a process for creating exhibits that capture the imagination of visitors. Adapting these processes and systems for the retail industry can take your display from concept to functioning exhibit.

A critical first step in the process is to determine the “black box” – a term used in the museum world that refers to a space and a concept for an exhibit. While the seasonality of retail means that the items that are on display are changed more frequently, few businesses are equipped to redesign their entire store on the same timeline. This makes the first step even more important for retailers, as your display needs to have that “timeless” quality – this is a crucial step in determining how your showcases, a concrete element of your brand – will play into your story.

The museum counterpart of a visual merchandiser, an interpretive planner, is involved in the next step to tease out the key areas of focus within the storyline, determine how the story will be told within the space, as well as any graphic design or interactive elements. Their role is two-fold, as they work in tandem with the architects to develop the space, and with the exhibit makers to develop the storyline.

The science of putting together a space is highly disciplined and refined in the museum industry, where it can take between 5 – 10 years to build an exhibit, so stringent are the processes for budget allocation, fabrication, review and approval, design and development. No retailer could work on that long a planning cycle, but in most cases the black box design concepts can be worked through over a few months. The overall lesson here is not to confuse the aspects of visual merchandising – your subject matter specialty, with the store concept and design (the black box). The mistake we often see in retail is that owners and merchandisers do not see the distinction.

sophie sagar