Enriching cultural experiences with digital retail

Taking advantage of online retail opportunities is essential to driving engagement in art and culture institutions

Consumers engage differently with cultural institutions nowadays. Physical attendance continues to rise, as we’ve written about previously, in conjunction with more immersive experiences thanks to technological innovations in the industry. Tapping into consumer culture to further drive attendance and revenue is an opportunity that should not be missed.


Let’s begin with financials. Many art and heritage institutions rely on donations, public funding, and attendance fees to stay afloat. While the balance sheet is still in good shape nationally, these are all potentially volatile sources of revenue.

Generational shifts, such as the shrinking of the baby boomer generation, who are responsible for most individual donations over the last forty years, will likely have an impact on donations as it is unclear whether they will successfully pass the mantle on to Millenials. Finding ways to engage Millenial consumer culture can significantly mitigate the consequences of the generational shift while opening another revenue stream.

Public funding of art and culture institutions remains strong and support for it prevalent among citizens. However, any institution that funds the bulk of its operations from the public purse is always in a vulnerable position. Policy changes can occur quickly, and contingencies must be in place. Self-sufficiency is key to weathering the storm of an unfavourable government budget. By making the most of online retail opportunities, heritage institutions can not only shield themselves from financial vulnerabilities but grow their operations far beyond what the government has allotted them in the latest funding bill.

Additionally, public funding, donations, and attendance fees are all geographically-restricted. By fully leveraging digital retail, art and culture institutions can enjoy a limitless, worldwide revenue stream from online shoppers.

Attendance fees are another way heritage institutions sustain their operations. Of course, this revenue stream is contingent on there being sufficient visitor engagement, both online and offline.

Visitor Engagement and Attendance

Most major retailers struggle to invent stories around their products to engage customers. Art and culture institutions have a key advantage in winning digital retail business: all of their product offerings come with their own, genuine story. Consumers want products with hidden value that provide richer experiences and tell these stories.

The Galt Museum and Archives in Lethbridge, Alberta, home to over 20,000 historic objects and nearly a million archival documents and photos, recently made the bulk of their archives available for purchase online anywhere in the world. By enhancing their product offerings, not only have they increased revenue, but they’ve seized opportunities for widespread engagement that would not have existed otherwise. For instance, they’ve received an influx in orders from Germany for their prints. This has been attributed to the 4000 German prisoners of war who would later become citizens of Lethbridge. By making a physical representation of a story available for purchase, a relatively small heritage institution in Alberta successfully engaged customers 7500 km away.

Old Photographs and Documents


Demand is indeed high among Lethbridge’s businesses for the museum’s prints, frequently ordering mural-sized prints to adorn their walls. This shows that digital retail boosts engagement with heritage institutions by providing commercial value in addition to personal value, to help businesses tell their story as well.

The Galt museum is a single example of a heritage institution taking advantage of retail opportunities to tell stories and expand their offerings. Ultimately, the products a heritage institution packages and sells influences how audiences engage with the brand and culture in general. Likewise, it gives those in the arts and culture space themselves an opportunity to think about their brand, their mission, their cultural value proposition, and represent them in a way that would drive sales and engagement.

Online Retail Strategy

Many museums and heritage institutions do already have online gift shops, and that is not lost on us here at OPIN. In fact, we’ve worked on several, such as the Canadian Museum of History and the Royal Conservatory of Music (who currently process millions of dollars in ecommerce transactions using OPIN’s decoupled solution).

Leveraging online retail to its full potential is more than a one-stop solution. It’s an ongoing commitment. Industry experts in arts and culture should market their products as if they were a dedicated retail company. As mentioned previously, they have an advantage: products offered by art and culture institutions come with their own story to tell.

One of the best ways to tell product stories visually is through social media such as Instagram. Encouraging users to share their stories and how products have connected them to these stories is a powerful way of reaching high levels of engagement. Likewise, offering discount codes, building email lists and even finding ways to integrate the products people purchase with physical exhibitions are all ways of maximizing engagement that should be pursued, explored and expanded upon by everyone in the industry.


Arts and culture institutions should not let their products collect dust on the shelves of their “digital gift shop” in a corner of their website. They should let them shine for the stories they tell by marketing them properly and unleashing their full potential.

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OPIN possesses award-winning expertise in building digital solutions for both the arts & culture and retail sectors. Feel free to reach out to us to learn more about OPIN’s enterprise Drupal expertise.