Curating an online heritage shop - Museums Association

Curating an online heritage shop

A case study from the National Archives
Digital Retail
Sally Hughes
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A selection of products sold on the National Archives' online shop
A selection of products sold on the National Archives' online shop

As the government’s national archive for England, Wales and the United Kingdom, the National Archives holds more than 1,000 years of the nation’s records for everyone to discover and use.

Our collections comprise more than 11 million paper records, including the Domesday book, Magna Carta, prime ministers’ papers, and government tweets.

We are expert advisers in information and records management and are a cultural, academic and heritage institution. We have a physical and online shop and every purchase supports the work of the organisation.

We launched a new online shop on 16 September 2020, after months of planning and hard work. We had identified the need to update our website long before the coronavirus pandemic, but relaunching the website in September has enabled us to reconnect with our customers at a time when we cannot serve them onsite.

Our physical shop at Kew began selling books on family, British and military history, but as our growing public engagement programme brought in new audiences, we introduced more gifts, cards and exhibition merchandise.

For the past 10 years, our online shop has been heavily book-focused. We wanted to change our website to mirror the improvements made onsite.

Setting up a new online shop

Retail operations at the National Archives is run by a team of four, with support from the wider marketing and IT divisions. We wanted an online retail system that was easy to operate, responsive and good value for money – and could integrate the online shop with our physical stores as they draw on the same stock.

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Following a detailed evaluation and tender process, we decided to go with the Shopify platform. We worked with an external partner to build the shop and drew on the retail team’s experience of the cultural sector and understanding of our customer base to design the customer experience.

The result is a standalone platform that has been designed to echo the look of the main website, with a seamless transition from one platform to another.

Customers can pay by credit and debit card and we have rolled out the use of Apple and Google Pay. PayPal will be operational in the next financial year. The process took longer than anticipated, but this provided an opportunity to do a complete review of our product offer.

Curating products

With lots of new products on the website, we wanted to improve the user experience for shoppers. While researchers might already have a book or author in mind, people looking for Christmas gifts or fashion items are more likely to browse a larger selection of products.

We opted to categorise our stock under nine main headings, with various sub-headings added to give customers the option to narrow their search or browse our full range.

Each member of the retail team has a vast knowledge of our stock and we have been able to utilise this in the way we curate and present products. Our gift guides identify items for a range of recipients (including foodies and book-lovers) and are proving popular with website visitors. As the Christmas period approaches, arranging items into price categories has been particularly useful for gifts.

We are also keen to highlight how products link to the organisation’s vast collection of records, our building and our exhibitions.

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We included an “Inspired By” tab that enables us to demonstrate these links and present items that shoppers might not have otherwise found. Products range from chocolate replica seals to jewellery inspired by our unique brutalist building.

Cross merchandising

As part of the National Archives, we are fortunate that items from our online shop can be referenced in our wider public engagement programme. We recently hosted a series called Meet the Author, a programme of free online talks with high-profile authors.

These events were promoted on the shop homepage and via our What’s On programme. Attendees were given the opportunity to buy signed copies of books. The talks reached people all over the world and many of those who ordered books might not have visited our online shop previously.

Next year we hope to integrate a print-on-demand service with an external partner, to further showcase some of the maps, print and posters from our collection and give a wider audience the opportunity to own a framed image.

We are also considering bringing event ticketing under the Shopify platform to provide a single shopping basket for both products and experiences, to maximise the opportunities for cross-merchandising.

Launching a new online shop is a significant undertaking but so far the hard work appears to be paying off. Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, with sales surpassing our expectations.

Sally Hughes is the retail manager at the National Archives

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