The ideal online museum shop product

This summer, together with my research team Emmy van Arent and Kim van Buuren, we look at museum shops online. In this post, we present the ideal product presentation for an online museum shop. We argue images and curation are essential quality signals. We identified no digital product exploration.

As hinted in our previous post, we consider products with an educational value to be a logical extension of the museum, such as the kitchen towels from Artis Micropia on the top of the post, designed by Mariëtte Wolbert. The description reads:

Bella Salmonella is an ode to the most common bacteria and viruses in the kitchen. A cheerful and contemporary design that reminds you to wash your hands and your kitchen sets regularly.

But how do you know it is a quality product? From the literature we know that quality signals of a museum are found in the attractiveness of the building, the various services provided, as well as the image communicated through the marketing efforts (Frey and Meier, 2006). It is logical to expect that perceived quality of the physical products purchased online will be related to the overall functionality and attractiveness of the website, the ease to make a purchase, the availability of products, and the way the products are displayed. Regarding the product characteristics, online museum shops make physical examination infeasible, for which descriptions and images gain greater importance as well as, when present, the feedback of the public (Di, et al, 2014).

Regarding ease to make a purchase, we found Dutch museum shops provide a range of payment options. 70% of museums do provide direct payment but 30% still require some form of contact with the museum in order to confirm the purchase, either via email, phone or at the store. Museum shops often advertise delivering the purchased products beyond the Dutch borders but 62% of the shops are in Dutch only and 32% provide both Dutch and English content, signalling a potential language barrier to non Dutch speakers.

We wanted to see how Dutch museums present their products online and looked at the quality signals based on number and type of images per product, type of text description, and ease to make an online purchase, see methodology for data collection method in previous post. Results were surprising: there were products with no image (!), just listed next to a price (from the Open air museum or the North Veluw museum), suggesting a specific knowledgeable consumer, and images with no description (!), just a simple title or self explanatory descriptor (as the ‘toilet dame‘). While the stamps may be self explanatory, the image is too small to make out the subject depicted in the stamp !

Half of the products in our dataset had only 1 image of various qualities, while a couple of products had more than 5 images per product. More than half of the products provided an edited image, reflecting some form of manipulation (e.g. the background), 17% of products provided a zoom option to view of the product, which can be helpful when shopping remotely, and only 3% provided an additional detailed view. Products could be displayed in a ‘virtual vitrine’ displaying many objects at the same time (as the case of the Friesmuseum or the Boat on a bottle museum) or have a dedicated web page (as the case of the hand painted necklace or the Rembrandt doll house).

Regarding the curated story to accompany the product, we found that most products (75%) include a curated story either about the product itself (25%), about the artist (22%), about the products’ cultural significance (19%), or about the maker (13%). Curiously, the product story is not always matched by the image, as the case of the Alice in Wonderland book which describes the special illustrations but only shows the book cover of the book, or the limited edition bag made out of the scaffolding cloth used during the remodelling of the museum and therefore unique, again only showing one bag.

Besides the ease of making a purchase and the information provided about the product either through images or text, the overall look of the online shop may also make an impression on the potential consumer. Comparing a shawl in 4 different shops may make a point: the quality of the image, the multiple views, the depiction of the product in context, the availability of close up shots or zoom lens, and the available description provide a fundamentally different experience.

Clearly, there are differences in the maturity of the online shop. We looked into the web archive for the first capture of the current museum shop url and found a capture from 2001 of the Van Gogh Museum and the Rock Art Museum Shops. There is a notable increase in the museum shops available since 2019 (see timeline figure below).

What is then the ideal museum shop product? we suggest products cannot be taken in isolation as their display is dependent on the overall website. The functionality of the website, the ease to make a purchase, the available images, and the curated story provided all contribute to the museum online shop experience. We invite further research on the consumer perception of the online shops as part of the museum services provided.

Our results suggests that the online museum shop is not always considered equally to the physical museum shop, and less to the overall museum institution. We argue the online museum shop is a reflection of the museum institution, including its quality of service and overall values, for the online visitor. Museums appear to disregard the image of their museum shop and miss out in expanding their mission, that of educating and communicating the value of the collections potentially to a global audience. From the 75% of products with a description, only 19% mention the cultural significance of the product, which appears to be rather low considering museums are experts in story telling and authorities in establishing cultural significance.

One surprise was the lack of digital product exploration. We did find products that use augmented reality (AR), such as the ‘virtuali-tee‘ shirt with a 3D layer to discover the body. We did not find paid online services as part of the museum shop product collection.

In our next post we will present the potential available of digital products by analysing the membership and donation scheme present in Dutch museums during the lockdown.


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I am a researcher on the historic and economic aspects of digital heritage. In my free time I sing and paint.

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