Building a great online shop

Ecommerce has continued to become to be an even more important share of retail sales year-on-year. The cultural sector is no exception to this role and online sales are of growing importance to museums, arts organisations and heritage institutions both large and small (not to mention artists, designers and makers directly). The potential audience is not just in the UK but also global with continued growth despite the travails of the high street. Even former bricks and mortar retailers like John Lewis now claim online sales account for 25% of total turnover.

3-years ago we launched the curated online marketplace of artist-designed products and affordable art from over 750 of the world’s leading museums and galleries, artists and designers. Collections are handpicked from official partners including iconic institutions such as Tate, V&A, British Museum, Royal Academy, Château de Versailles, National Gallery, Design Museum, BFI, Whitechapel Gallery, National Theatre, New Museum, NYC, ICA and the Royal Opera House. Our growth has been rapid and in 2012 we secured investment from a leading technology venture capital firm. Our plans in 2013 include opening a US and Australian office to complement our European base in London.

Interestingly, as we are a team with specialist know-how in this area, a number of our partners have asked us to produce online shops for them including institutions such as the Courtauld Gallery, London at Somerset House and Royal Scottish Academy. In other cases we have also developed and operated entirely their ecommerce function, such as for the Saatchi Gallery for whom we created We have been asked to draw on this knowledge to provide our top tips on how to build a great ecommerce experience.

Know your strengths

You can clearly tap into a large audience online but you have to be focused and know what you are good at to do this effectively. It has long been said that a great strength of the Internet is that you can find an audience for virtually anything and niches have become the new mainstream. For example, websites like have carved a community around a particular of culture, street art. If you are interested in street art, that’s the place where you go and it has been a very successful online business for a number of years. It helps that they are the distributor for Banksy but they have used that position to create a collectors’ club for the community.

Off the shelf versus bespoke builds

Once you have decided on your business model and target audience it is relatively easy to create a basic shop using an off-the-shelf e-commerce solution. Some providers allow the online shop to closely mirror you main website by designing your own page templates to match. Generally this is the lowest cost approach as you are not building something from scratch but you will generally pay a commission on sales or a monthly fee so can cost in the long-term.

Off-the-shelf stores are quick to set-up for the same reasons but are also generally limited in features to optimise sales as they are aimed at sole-traders (but are sophisticated enough for the needs of most museums and galleries). For organisations that have high web traffic and expect to sell a lot then many opt to build their own online shops to an exact brief. This is known as a bespoke build as it gives you more control over the final product but of course the cost for this is higher depending on the exact functionality scope.

Keep it fresh

Once your new shop is live, you are in control and skills like onsite merchandising come to the fore. In terms of maximising your investment in the platform you need to get the content and offer right so the customer will buy. Keep the site fresh with regular promotions and product rotation. Create resonance with the audience you have targeted or serve with a consistent tone of voice and house style.

To increase the amount each customer spends, it is always a good idea to make customers aware or alternatives or add-on sales. are the masters of cross-selling and up-selling and this sort of promotion can really benefit sales by logically exposing the customer to other products that might interest them. Remember – for customers visiting online shops that intend to buy, you need to get the balance between great content and reducing barriers to purchase by providing as few clicks as possible to complete checkout.

Websites generally are typically defined by the quality of their photography, especially in cases where they are intended to promote premium craft products. Professional product photography is always worth the investment. Additional functionality like zoom is deployed in websites such as the Google Art Project, which would allow users to see the quality of craftsmanship behind each product.

Build it and they will not come

A common myth in ecommerce and on the web more generally is that building a great online shop will sort everything out. Experience proves that this is only half the job and building a community around your product or brand is the most important thing and provide the funnel of customers to convert.

You can build an audience of collectors using a variety of techniques. Online advertising is one of the most common ways of generating web traffic. Google and Facebook advertising are the options most use as they have the largest audience. Alternatively, use banner advertising on carefully selected networks to attract an additional customer base.

Connect you site to your other online channels such as Facebook, Twitter and Google+ as these are free and ensure your friends and followers are aware of your products. Try and make any communications as targeted and creative as possible so that you are not always just seen as selling to them.

In addition, compelling text on product pages ranks well on Google, whilst product PR is another way to reach an audience. CultureLabel has generated over 500 media articles for our partners since launch.

It is easier to retain an existing customer and get them to buy again so use regular email marketing to maintain communication and announce new or themed offers.

An online offer made to measure

Data is at the heart of every online success story, and understanding the importance and use of metrics and data is critical to any online seller. Data has been called the new oil and you can get incredibly valuable insights on your audience and sales performance using free tools such as Google Analytics. This can now even identify and measure real-time occurrences as well as broader trends. Each stage of the user path to purchase will be considered, from marketing execution through to onsite merchandising and the checkout process.

Blurring online and offline

CultureLabel has introduced a number of touchscreen devices into the online shops of our partners. These display their online shops with the aim of getting the customer to realise they have an online shop which is a year-round destination not just based around the physical visit.

Mobile commerce is also booming with 50% of Groupon’s business is expected to be from mobile in the next 2-years so ensure your online shop is mobile friendly. CultureLabel runs an annual event called MobileCulture with speakers from leading industry players such as Google, Vodafone and O2. If you want to find out more about this area in particular then see the conference website to access the presentations from last year.

So to conclude, hopefully some of these insights while not exhaustive have been useful but in conclusion here are our 5 quick tips for developing your online store:

  • Embrace digital as a key part of your commercial strategy and not just the obvious areas like ecommerce but other areas such as ticketing and location based services. However, don’t spend a fortune on it. We often see this and you really don’t need to with such great open source systems around; just make sure you get the best advice as there are a lot of cowboys out there.
  • Do spend time (if not necessarily a lot of money) on developing a digital audience, too many institutions spend money on the infrastructure but are not so smart when it comes to acquiring customers especially in areas like ecommerce. Facebook is changing marketing and offers incredible potential savings and new audience development potential for the cultural sector.
  • The internet has gone mobile so make sure whatever you do for the point above it’s reflected in your mobile strategy. We recently ran a major conference called MobileCulture with speakers from Vodafone, Nokia, BBC and Google and it was amazing how few people have engaged with mobile properly yet.
  • Aggregation is key to the cultural sector making more income as a whole as most things are better done together in terms of providing the best possible range and experience for the customer. This is the foundation of the vision behind, and our partners benefit from harnessing this additional sales channel.
  • Blend the digital and the physical commercial services as much as possible so it is a seamless proposition for you user.