3 Lessons Arts & Cultural Organizations Can Learn from Retail | npENGAGE

3 Lessons Arts & Cultural Organizations Can Learn from Retail

By on Sep 6, 2019


arts & cultural, engagement strategy, membership

Being new to the arts & cultural space (career-wise, not interest-wise), I’ve been doing a lot of reading to get a better understanding of this industry. What’s surprised me are the parallels I see with other industries – namely retail where I was most recently focused – and it got me thinking: what can arts & cultural organizations learn from the retail industry?

Challenges brick & mortar retailers are facing include fighting for share of wallet and changing consumer expectations. To address these challenges, they are looking to get a better understanding of their customers, engage their audience and create the right customer experience to get them in the door and to keep them coming back. Sound familiar?

Gone are the days of “build it and they will come”. The current environment is being called the retail apocalypse. Eight months into 2019 and already 7600+ stores are slated to close, with thousands of locations already gone. While we’re not in this dire situation in the arts & cultural industry, I think there are things we can learn from the retailers who are thriving. What are they doing, and can we apply the same concepts in arts & cultural?

Understanding your Customers

The first and most important thing that you can do is to get a better understanding of your patrons. Retailers have been collecting customer data for years and are partly to blame for the consumer’s increased expectation of “you should know me when you talk to me”.  You want to collect as much data as possible on your visitors at every interaction so you can analyze and surface insights. It’s important to understand who’s walking through your doors, what brought them in, and what they engaged with.

Takeaway: Capturing the data is only the first step to understanding your patrons. In order to be able to use the data, you need to be able to analyze it and turn it into insights. It’s more important than ever to make your decisions based on data and insights and not on hunches or guesses. This data can then be used to engage your audience and create the right experience.  

Engaging with your Customers

In today’s digital world, everyone is inundated with messages. To cut through the noise and engage with your audience, you need to be very targeted and personalized with your messages. Data will help you segment your database and message patrons appropriately based on what they care about. While aquariums, museums, theaters and zoos don’t have the marketing budgets of retailers, they can implement the same principles when they reach out.

It’s well known that people will purchase from people they like. This has been taken a step further with today’s consumers, especially Millennials and Gen Z, who feel strongly about their beliefs and causes. They will choose to do business and frequent establishments where there are shared values. These values include everything from how organizations treat their employees to being environmentally responsible to helping to create a community.

Recently in the news we’ve seen Starbucks piloting reusable cups at the Gatwick airport, Zara pledging that 100 percent of the cotton, linen and polyester they use will be either be more sustainable, organic or recycled by 2025 and even the giant Walmart investing in renewable energy by subscribing to solar gardens.

Takeaway: As an arts & cultural organization, you want to understand what your target audience cares about and then take a step back and think about what your core beliefs and how they connect and align with the top concerns of your audience. How can you demonstrate your mission’s values?

Creating the Right Customer Experience

As Stella Hartley, a retail marketing expert said, “Customers are more demanding, the internet has sped everything up, customers want more newness, they have a shorter attention span, one seasonal range isn’t going to excite them.” The key trend in the retail industry is customer experience. It’s no longer about stocking your shelves full of product and having customers come in to purchase, it’s about engaging and creating a community.

The retailers who are thriving, such as Nordstrom, focus on customer experience. They have a “nothing is too much” attitude and reward customer loyalty with incentives, free shipping, price matching, free personal shopping and an open return policy. According to a recent survey by Apparel Magazine, “The brand appreciates that their customers are taking time out of their day to shop in their stores and they’ve forged a stress-free and enjoyable experience. Everyone is made to feel like a VIP no matter how big or small the purchase is ….”.

Visitor experience matters to arts & cultural organizations as well. If a patron has a good experience, there’s a better chance that they will return. Look for ways to delight patrons from friendly greetings and helpful staff to rewarding loyalty. Use your data to look for opportunities to enchant your guests in unexpected ways.

Innovation and newness are also key to Nordstrom’s success. Along with many other retailers, they have embraced pop-ups in their stores. Not only have they embraced it, these pop-ups sit in the most coveted place within the store, right at the front doors. This is significant. Historically, cosmetics have enjoyed prime real estate because they have the highest margins. This lucrative setting has now been given to pop-ups. What does this say about the importance of innovation and newness to Nordstrom and their success?

Takeaway: Arts and cultural organizations can learn from retailers on customer experience. New and temporary exhibits are always a draw. Be sure to leverage your data and insights to determine the best ones to bring in. How can you keep a calendar of rotating exhibits and things to feature? How can you add to the way patrons experience existing exhibits by offering special talks, a new way to think about it, backstage tours, etc. All of this adds dimension to your visitors’ experience.

There’s no need to reinvent the wheel

Millennials are poised to overtake baby boomers as the largest adult population group sometime this year (2019). It’s going to be increasingly important for arts & cultural organizations to reach and engage this audience. The good news is that research has shown that Millennials value experiences over possessions. This gives arts & cultural organizations a leg up. They can take a page from the retail playbook to understand their patrons, to engage them, and to create an experience that will have them walking through the doors and coming back.


Helen was formerly a principal solutions marketer for Blackbaud Arts & Cultural Solutions. She has an MBA in marketing and 20+ years experience working in high tech and software, and has a passion for the arts. Her husband proposed to her in front of the Art Institute of Chicago and together with their two children frequent zoos, aquariums, museums and the performing arts.

Comments (6)

  • Brad McCabe says:

    Helen, truly on point takeaways.

    I find that many organizations could do well to look at retail’s engagements with customers. “Path to purchase” is something I have heard discussed many times in the retail realms but never in philanthropic or arts organizations.

    • Helen Yang says:

      Thanks for your feedback, Brad! One of the things that excites me the most is being able to bring the best marketing practices from the corporate world into the non-profit and arts & cultural world. Great call-out on the buyer’s journey/path to purchase. You may just see a blog post on that topic from me sometime in the near future. I know you’re in Canada so wanted to mention that I’ll be in Toronto for ASTC on Sept 21 and 22. Please drop by the Blackbaud booth if you’re going to be there.

  • Rebecca says:

    I am concerned that we as arts organizations are not really listening to our audience and looking for new and innovative ways to engage with them. This article is great. Our organizations offer experiences, but we need to ensure they are the ones that meet the needs/wants of our audiences.

    • Helen Yang says:

      Rebecca, I’m so glad to hear that this article resonated with you. I would love to hear if you or anyone else has any ideas on the best ways to ensure that arts & cultural organizations offer the right experiences for their audiences.

      A good friend of mine who owns a house restoration business once told me that it’s worth splurging on lighting fixtures because it’s the “jewelry” of the home, but there are other places she saves to maximize the selling price and profit. I would love to get opinions on where arts & cultural organizations should spend/invest and where can they save to maximize customer experience and revenue growth.

  • Megan Shackle says:

    Wonderful food for thought. Most of this we discuss regularly at my organization, but the stat about Millennials about to outnumber baby boomers really emphasizes the urgency of the matter.

    • Helen Yang says:

      I’m so happy to hear that you discuss this regularly at your organization. I’m still floored by that stat as well. It was mind-blowing to me!

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