Shop for a Cause

By Hannah Wallace February 28, 2005

Even museum store managers at the Louvre and Metropolitan Museum of Art need counsel now and then. That's when they turn to the international Museum Store Association, which this year is chaired by Robert McComb, retail manager of our very own Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota.

At Selby Gardens, McComb oversees a two-shop operation that last year grossed more than $800,000 in its Rain Forest Store and Museum Gallery Store in The Mansion—not too shabby when you consider the Museum Store Association reports median net sales of $164,401 for its member museum stores worldwide in 2004. (At the high end it's been estimated that the Met brings in about $40 million through its in-museum stores, satellite outlets and catalog sales.)

The Museum Store Association has 1,717 museum members worldwide; 44 botanical gardens are members, as are science museums, aquariums, historic homes, and art and history museums. In Sarasota, Mote, Selby and Ringling are members. Otherwise, McComb says, not-for-profit retail in this region tends to be in the form of thrift shops.

When McComb joined Selby Gardens in 2002, after nearly 13 years as shops manager at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, he completely overhauled the retail operations, remodeled the spaces, added more upscale merchandise and even renamed them. Prior to his long tenure at the Ringling, he had operated his own for-profit retail store in Lake Placid, N.Y. from 1980 to1985, around the time of the Winter Olympics, where he sold music boxes, German nutcrackers and other European products.

Selby's two shops together have a total of 2,500 square feet. "That's a very good ratio for our size," says McComb, citing a recent MSA survey of botanical gardens that reported a range of annual revenues from $273,000 to $1.385 million. The Gardens averages 165,000 visitors annually. (In comparison, the Ringling Museum, with 280,000 visitors last year, recently announced that sales passed $1 million for the first time.)

One fundamental difference governs museum store operations, of course: Their profits support the programs of the sponsoring organization, not an individual business owner or some conglomerate. "Everyone buys into the mission [of the organization]," says McComb, "and the store is used to promote or advance that cause." That's why the Rain Forest store purchases orchids and other tropical plants, books on rainforest ecosystems, housewares that carry a tropical theme and toy poison dart frogs and butterflies.

If a museum store sells anything that does not relate to the mission, McComb says, it must follow IRS rules on UBIT (unrelated business income) tax. There's a fine line; rainforest themed t-shirts that illustrate the different kinds of tree frogs, for example, are mission-related; keychains with the Selby Gardens logo are not.

The association runs two annual boot camps, training not-for-profit shops managers in everything from store design to the basics of business education. For example, says McComb, even though some not-for-profit retail operations are run strictly by volunteers "these volunteers should acquire the business knowledge necessary to succeed." (Annual gross revenues of $100,000 are a good dividing line, he says. "If the store's only making $25,000 how can you possibly offer a salary? You can't.")

McComb is a big believer in the power of volunteers to stretch resources and serve as ambassadors for the organization to visitors. At Selby Gardens, paid employees handle sales transactions; volunteers are deployed to inform customers about the plants for purchase and to generally answer questions about the gardens. To that end, McComb instituted a series of information sessions between shops volunteers and Gardens botanists.

"Volunteers need to be well grounded in what they know about the organization and its mission; they need to be personable and energetic," says McComb. "They're our life blood."

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