Jul 28, 2020
MSA hosts reopening webinar with panelist discussions

On July 15, 2020, Museum Store Association (MSA) held its Reopening Webinar, which featured six panelists and David Duddy, interim executive director for MSA. During the webinar, panelists and David discussed a myriad of topics museums and museum gift shops are facing during these challenging times.

Panelists discussed what phases of opening their respective museums were in and what types of attendance has been experienced both in the museums and in the gift shops. Topics such as new procedures, signage, staffing, cleaning, social distancing, ticketing requirements and more were part of the overall discussions.

Notable Differences

Panelists discussed notable differences at institutions since reopening and addressed topics such as overall number of visitors, amount shoppers are spending and more.

Columbia River Maritime Museum: Blue Anderson

Blue Anderson from Columbia River Maritime Museum in Oregon noted that usually 95% of its visitors are from out of town. Currently, Columbia River Maritime Museum has no real restrictions on visitors, as its overall number of visitors is lower than normal. 

Anderson noted that the gift shop is about 18,000 square feet and can handle approximately 18 shoppers at one time in the current climate. Changes to the store include a coronavirus poster placed at the entrance to the store that requests all shoppers to use hand sanitizer upon entry to the store. “We have placed two carts in the store, to put something back to either put away for a few days or wipe down items and put them back,” she noted, in regards to shoppers touching merchandise. Additionally, any plush or items that could potentially be chewed upon by young shoppers have been removed as a precaution.

Columbia River has been fortunate in that it was able to keep all staff and didn’t lay off anyone. Physically the space is big enough and staff small enough that staff was able to space out, according to Anderson. She shared that overall the store has lost approximately $158,000 and visitation is down. On a positive note, Anderson shared that Columbia River’s visitors are not afraid to spend and they have not seen a change in what customers are purchasing.

Chrysler Museum of Art: Colleen Higginbotham

At the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia, Colleen Higginbotham noted it has limited occupancy restrictions, up to 25% of normal levels. “We have yet to hit that number,” she shared. “We are offering timed, free tickets with designated hours for visitors over 60 and those susceptible to illness.”

Higginbotham noted that customer care is important and that the staff opens doors for its customers. Plexiglass has been installed and masks are available to hand out to customers as well. She did note that in its glass studio, they conduct a live demo, which used to hold 150 attendees. With restrictions in place, the demo now holds only 24 viewers. “We are glad to be able to offer this (demo). We are just starting classes back this weekend,” she shared in regards to the popular demonstration the museum offers.

Chrysler Museum didn’t lose any staff during closures, as they worked from home according to Higginbotham. Its large team consists of 45-50 people and some felt concerned about re-opening and at this time not all are coming back into the museum to work, because they are not ready to do so. Higginbotham said the museum conducted a full day of training to all employees prior to re-opening to relay the information on new guidelines. 

“We are seeing about half normal visitors; yet 68% of normal sales,” said Higginbotham. “We are seeing the increase in sales and we think it is people wanting to support us.” Jewelry, normally a big seller, is not selling — “masks are the new accessory” she shared. The shop is selling masks very well and can hardly keep them in stock according to Higginbotham.

Hillwood Estate, Museums & Gardens: Lauren Salazar

Hillwood Estate, Museums & Gardens, located in Washington D.C. opened to members and frontline workers on June 2. Three weeks later, on June 23, it re-opened all buildings. Timed tickets are required  and are purchased in advance of a visit. “The vast majority of people don’t come into the visitor’s center [where gift shop is located]. Most people are staying in the gardens,” she said. Overall Hillwood Estate’s gift store can handle only three customers at a time, with its two staff members. “It fills up and we still have to turn people away, but not as much as we thought we would,” she explained. One staff member works the register and one monitors capacity at the door. One challenge the staff encountered was that shoppers were not wearing masks correctly. To address this issue, Hillwood Estate had a sign created on the proper way to wear a mask, so that visitors have to pass by it. “About 12% of people are not wearing masks properly. It is something we hope, that as people get out and about more this gets better,” she shared. 

At Hillwood Estates the cashier is enclosed in plexi-glass and only one register is open. Salazar shared the store does not have enough room in the cashier area to have two associates and maintain proper social distancing. She also shared that they are using plastic wrap over the key pads and sometimes will tear off each sale, or at the end of day. Sanitization is a priority and hand sanitizer is located throughout the store and staff cleans every morning and multiple times per day with lysol spray and wipes, not bleach — this includes sanitizing the stylist and POS. Since the retail store is narrow and small a social distancing reminder mat was placed on the carpet.

Salazar shared that sales did have a bump during the July 4 holiday week, but sales are still low. She thinks it is because so many visitors aren’t coming into the store. Yet those shoppers that do come in are buying and the average sale per visitor is up. 

Visitation is normally about 1200-1300 per week at Hillwood and the week prior to the webinar, it experienced about 739 visitations per week. This does impact sales, but on the positive, Salazar said that sales are more than what was expected. “Definitely doing far beyond 25% … we need to figure out how to lure people into the store and have them feeling comfortable,” she said.

High Museum of Art: Patricia Sampson

Patricia Sampson, High Museum of Art in Atlanta, shared that it is currently in phase 3. Phase 1 began with a summer camp and phase 2 the institution opened to members and frontline workers and military on July 7. “We have seen a good trend of people coming out, especially with our city being in Phase 1 again. We are requiring masks again. Our directors have also pitched in to check in guests and explain masks are required and social distancing is necessary. We hope that as climate changes, more visitors will be able to come out. In the past week we have had some cancellations because the city has gone back to phase 1,” she shared.

At High Museum of Art, most visitors are going into the store to purchase items. However, the occupancy is limited to 10 guests and two staff members as the city has moved back into Phase 1. Sampson noted masks are the top-sellers in the shop and have almost sold out. She also shared that visitors are not afraid of pricing and that the store is experiencing an average sales per transaction of $22; with a sale per visitor of over $4.

Mark Twain House and Museum: Ilana Stollman

During the pandemic a majority of staff worked from home and it experienced several layoffs and furloughed some staff to four days a week. 

“The hardest part about reopening was the supplies needed,” Stollman shared. “We have already had several changes and have had an expert form Yale School of Health assess the museum. We started out small with one tour per hour and now have 2 per hour. We have seven people per tour now, but started with five per tour.” 

Mark Twain House and Museum is giving out masks to someone if they don’t have one and welcome signs with important information regarding visits are posted and available on its website. Additionally, the museum maintains a log of all staff on premise on any given day for contact tracing, if necessary. Additionally, hand sanitizer is located throughout the museum, and personnel are required to frequently use that and hand wash frequently, as well as participate in a daily health screening and allows some employees to work remotely if not considered a “front-line” worker of the museum.

The store capacity allows for 7 guests and only two staff members. Plexi barriers were installed to protect staff, seating in the front of the store was removed, cleaning of high traffic areas after each transaction, social distancing reminders and other new protocols have been implemented.

The museum had 5,535 visitors last year and this year, through June 30, it has had only 698. The encouraging statistic is that last year, the average sale per customer was $17.40 and this year it has increased to $23.94, which is a 37% increase in the average sale and 80% increase in sales per visitor. Overall, retail has been impacted. The museum has experienced a -77% decrease in overall sales versus last year. “The sad numbers say it all. The good news is the few visitors we are having are spending more money,” said Stollman.

Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens: Susan Tudor

Currently in phase 1, the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens has enacted similar changes at its destination. Timed tickets are required and allow for 50 visitors per time slot. There are usually two time slots per day, and closed in between visits for cleaning purposes. On long days, there are three tours per day. Susan Tudor shared that masks are required while visitors are in the building, but not in the gardens. 

“Upon entering, guests are given masks and door keys, to help open doors and for use on touch screens are provided to visitors,” shared Tudor. “Communication is important and our team put together a short video on an overview of gardens and the health/safety information — trying to make sure visitors know what we are doing to protect them and our staff.” Cummer has placed all this important information online and on YouTube.

Cummer Museum was able to keep all its staff, no one was furloughed or layed off. Staff was divided into teams, where some teams work remotely three out of five days. Additionally, Cummer had a nurse on site for the first three weeks, who takes temperatures and answered staff questions. Cummer is utilizing an iPad photo imaging temperature check, which is working well according to Tudor. Staff was required to participate in a mandatory training session through Zoom and all staff are provided PPE.

In the retail environment, masks that are Cummer branded and jewelry are the best-sellers. Compared to the same time period last year, the capture rate has increased 27% and the average sale has increased 24%. Unfortunately, the transaction count is significantly decreased from the same period as last year, as is the store’s sales and the total number of visitors to the museum.


All panelists agreed that masks are mandatory inside buildings. Signs are here to stay and describe policies and in some cases the proper way to wear/use a mask. Some destinations have taken it yet a step farther and have staff greeting visitors and reviewing the information with them, including how to properly wear a mask. 

In some states, if someone has a doctor’s note or doesn’t comply, they are still allowed in, while in other locations this is not the case. In those regions, If someone doesn’t want to wear a mask, some museums have offered face shields as an alternative, while others are seeking alternative ways to shop — such as a special off-hour time slot — for those who cannot wear a mask due to health reasons.

Some of the panelists noted they are giving masks out free to visitors, while others are selling for $1 and yet others are selling for more. All panelists said that they are hot-sellers and have either almost sold out or have difficulty keeping masks in stock because they are being sold quickly. 

One panelist described that she can barely keep the masks in stock as they have sold out several times, as the custom creations have appealed to shoppers and the visitors know it helps support the museum. Each state has different mandates and or laws in place when it comes to wearing masks.

“MSA vendors have moved production into custom masks and mask accessories. The buyer-friendly forum is keeping a list of vendors and can post on Shop Talk if you are looking to broaden the base on masks to stock. A lot of MSA vendors are prepared and ready to ship,” explained David Duddy.

For more information, visit www.museumstoreassociation.org. The entire slideshow is also available to view online.

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