Creating a low-cost online museum shop - Museums Association

Creating a low-cost online museum shop

A case study from Metheringham Airfield Visitor Centre
Digital Retail
Caterina Scott
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Built on the “Freewebstore” platform, the Metheringham Airfield Museum online shop took just a few days to build
Built on the “Freewebstore” platform, the Metheringham Airfield Museum online shop took just a few days to build

RAF Metheringham Airfield Visitor Centre near Martin in Lincolnshire is an Accredited museum run by the Friends of Metheringham Airfield (FOMA), a volunteer-run charity.

The museum is dedicated to those men and women who flew with, and supported, 106 Squadron, Royal Air Force Bomber Command from 1943 until the end of the second world war. The main sources of revenue for the museum have traditionally been from memberships, donations, and retail sales from the on-site shop.

The museum is only open for three days a week between March and October, which means we generate little or no retail income during the winter months. Although the museum website had the facility to sell items from our shop online, it was clunky to use and administer, and never promoted, so online sales were negligible.

Last winter we were fortunate to recruit a new volunteer, Mike Woodward, with a background in IT. Having successfully re-platformed our website, Mike began looking at the possibility of creating an online store that would generate revenue during the period when the museum is closed.

Given our very limited experience of online sales we had no idea if this would generate significant income or not, so Mike looked to set up a webstore at the lowest possible cost.

The main criteria were:

  • Low monthly subscription cost (ideally free)
  • Low commission fees on sales
  • Easy to build and administer
  • Online payments built in
  • Basic stock management built in.

Mike eventually chose to build an online store using the FreeWebstore platform. This platform offers organisations a choice of either a free (community) or paid (professional) online store. Using the free version, Mike set up a store from scratch in about two weeks.

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Our store sits on a standalone platform but there is a link to it from our main website. Customers can order items online and pay for them using debit or credit cards or PayPal. Stock for any orders requiring the dispatch of physical products is collected from the on-site shop and posted out within three days of an order being received.

The online store went live in October 2019 and after some promotional activity via the website and social media the first customer orders were received in early November. Initially the store stocked a limited range of less than 20 items including membership, donations and a small selection of books from our physical shop.

From a standing start the online store generated sales of £1,250 in the first five months. Although not a huge amount, this at least meant the museum had some income at a time when it would normally have none.

With the museum set to reopen in March, we were looking forward to boosting our retail sales revenue via the on-site shop. But the Covid pandemic meant the museum – and our shop – remained closed.

Suddenly the new online store went from being a secondary retail channel to being our only way of selling to the public for the foreseeable future. Mike added more products to the site and coordinated a social media strategy to promote these, such as “Book of the Week”.  

We also put out social media appeals for financial support and received several large donations as well as additional orders for products from the online store.

Between April and November 2020 the online store has generated sales of more than £3,500, giving a total for the first 12 months of just under £5,000.

Given that we have had hardly any other sources of income, this has proven to be a welcome lifeline at a time when finances are being seriously stretched.

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Moreover, creating the online store has had a number of other benefits, including:

  • It has streamlined the membership application and renewal process as we have reduced the number of cheques we need to handle
  • It has allowed us to process membership payments from to overseas supporters far more easily
  • It has made it easier for supporters (especially those overseas) to make a donation
  • It has allowed us to make our all products available to a much wider audience.

With the museum still closed, the online store will be our sole retail channel until at least March 2021. Our plan is to put even more items in to the online store and coordinate with our social media team for a pre-Christmas sales push.

The online store has gone from being a “nice to have” to being truly essential.

Lessons learnt along the way include:

  • It is possible for a small volunteer-run museum to build a professional looking, secure eCommerce site in under two weeks for free with basic IT skills
  • An online shop needs to be promoted via the main website and social media to gain traction
  • PayPal support is pretty much essential (more than half of customers use PayPal)
  • Packing and posting items is time consuming
  • Targeted social media campaigns can directly drive sales.

Caterina Scott is a curator and trustee at Metheringham Airfield Visitor Centre. This article was written by the team at the visitor centre

Comments (1)

  1. Malcolm Fitzell says:

    Hi Caterina,

    Thank you for a most interesting and inspiring article. I am involved with a medium size museum in Ireland which despite being entitled “national” is actually volunteer based, and with the lockdowns our onsite shop has been unable to operate, so online may be the way to go for us.

    Would you be able to give some idea of the amount of time per week required for packing and posting items purchased through the online shop, and also for processing orders, updating store website?

    Malcolm Fitzell, National Maritime Museum of Ireland

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