the art of retail

Last Sunday’s New York Times included a piece, “At MoMA, ‘Permanent’ Learns to Be Flexible.”  moma_logoIt outlined how the museum’s new chief curator of painting and sculpture, Ann Temkin, is challenging the rules of museum display.  In the piece, I found some instructive parallels for struggling retailers.

If the idea of retailers learning from museums sounds familiar, it may be because earlier this year I wrote a post recommending that retailers follow in the footsteps of three museums’ attempts to reinvigorate visitor and donor interest.  I believe retailers and museums experience some of the challenges:

  • Like museums, retailers must curate and edit their assortment in order to reside at the optimal position on the continuum between identifying new items to introduce to the public and offering pieces already desired by – or at least familiar to — them.
  • The manner in which an item is merchandised in retail can be as critical to its success as the manner in which a piece of art is displayed in a museum.
  • And as the in-store customer experience becomes increasingly competitive, retailers must look for ways to entertain and delight —  not just sell stuff to — its visitors.

So the strategies that museums undertake are relevant to retail in general — but MoMA’s seem particularly important to note in a time when retailers, like the venerable institution of modern art, are discovering the need for “fluidity and constant rhythm of change.

Some examples of MoMA’s new approach and their implications for retailers:

In galleries with familiar themes and many familiar works, Ms. Temkin and her staff have mixed in surprises. “When there are one or two fresh things in a room, it puts viewers on alert,” she explained.

Retailers might intersperse a few surprise pieces in established collections or look for other ways to present familiar items in unexpected ways. Put shoppers “on alert” by adding a sense of excitement and drama to the shopping experience through new approaches to old stand-by products.

For one series of paintings, Tempkin has accompanied each work with a long, explanatory title. And she’s developing labels that explain the themes of rooms in one of the galleries (currently only individual works have wall texts.)  Temkin rationalized the changes saying,“I wanted to go against the cliché of high modernism, which was invested in the idea that you don’t need words…We can’t expect people to read our minds.

Retailers might identify ways to narrate and explain their merchandise – using innovative signage and displays to post headlines or provide details that explain the stories behind particular pieces or that advocate a POV about how products might be used in new ways.

Perhaps the most significant change, in the context of MoMA’s traditions, is the mixing of media in the galleries, the Times reports.  This is in sharp contrast to the segregated approach used since the 1960s wherein MoMA’s curatorial departments were rigidly divided: painting and sculpture, drawing, photography and architecture were separate worlds.  But Temkin understands the need for the new mixed approach: “This is how contemporary eyes see it…Nowadays artists work in all media.

Retailers might challenge their own conventions and use merchandising approaches that are more in-tune with the different ways today’s consumers shop.  In particular, department stores could re-think floorplans and display strategies to accommodate shoppers who are searching for a particular item vs. those who are browsing, to make comparison shopping among similar offerings easier, and to enhance the social aspects of the shopping experience.

To re-invigorate their sector, I encourage retailers to adopt Temkin’s way of thinking.  She is committed to a more experimental approach. “Some things may not work out,” she said, but fear of failure” should not be an obstacle.

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