An insightful perspective on the blurring of lines between museums and retail, in particular looking at how they increasingly focus on delivering simplified, streamlined experiences that begin well before the actual visit — and (hopefully) continue long after.

What comes to mind for me is the before-and-after experiences I had at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. This was (and remains) my favorite museum, so much so that when they completed a two-year renovation in 2015, I took a train from Boston just to be there on opening day. The “before” experience felt like walking through the world’s largest attic – filled with every imaginable curiosity, some pristine, others dusty, all fascinating mementos of an incredible history.

By contrast, the “after” experience was pristine, colorful, highly interactive, thoughtfully curated … packed to the gills with people of all ages, and packed with retail purchasing opportunities (I’ve since been back a couple of times). In fact I still use the coffee mug I picked up that first day, a constant reminder of the blending of museums and retail (and much more, of course!).

From the outside looking in, museums and retail stores don’t seem to have much in common—museums are shrines to art, culture and knowledge, while retail is the ultimate symbol of consumerism. But, when we take a closer look at the evolution of our retail and cultural environments, we find similarities and discover that the trajectory of design trends in museums maps closely with retail.

Facing increased competition for guests’ attention, museums and retailers alike have realized they need to deliver compelling experiences to connect with their visitors. Simply providing accessible storage of a collection of retail goods or artifacts doesn’t capture the visitor’s imagination. In retail, the guest experience has become the biggest single driver of business, with leaders in customer experience (CX) seeing a 15-20 percent increase in revenue (Source: McKinsey). Similarly, museums are turning to new technologies and experiences to connect with new audiences, retain current visitors and boost overall attendance. […]