The Met Gets Serious About Online Retail

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New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art has paid little heed to its online retail operations since its site began five years ago. A recent realization, however, that the site contributes less than 1 percent of all merchandise sales in a booming e-commerce market spurred the institution to act.

The museum this year expects to raise its online profile through a newly revamped Web site, affiliate deals with other Internet retailers, contextual selling that embeds related merchandise in collections and an extended reach to attract donations. And yet the Met will be a cautious online retailer.

"Philosophically, it's a new world to some extent for the Met and we want to be very careful that, in whatever we do, we maintain our identity, our brand, and not end up in a pot-pourri of a lot of different places and things," said Emily K. Rafferty, senior vice president for external affairs.

The Met grapples with a problem unique to nonprofit institutions. The bottom line is not always money, Rafferty said. is a museum site with a store, not a store with a museum.

"We want it to really do both. We want it to be reflective of the mission of the institution to inform people, to allow them to interpret our collections, to find educational programs and teacher materials and everything from that side," Rafferty said.

"At the same time, [we want] to balance it with the commerce side and to really say unabashedly that we also look for a bottom line that is financial," she added. "We're looking to this site to provide us yet another main revenue stream for this institution. And so we want to give exponentially and we want to get exponentially."

The Met expects to see about $90 million in sales this fiscal year ending June 30. Of this, the museum projects online sales to account for more than $1 million.

Things began to improve last fiscal year, especially during the holiday season, when the site's sales for the year doubled to $400,000.

Encouraged, the Met commissioned New York-based Icon Nicholson to build a new site that was easy to navigate, interlocked merchandise with information on collections and that still conveyed a sense of the museum's dignity in the midst of e-commerce.

The Met has projected that for the 2001 fiscal year, sales from the online store will reach $2 million. MetNet online memberships, currently 2,700, are projected to jump 100 percent. Though no figure has been pegged, donor support through gifts to the museum should also rise.

Richard B. Price, CEO/founder of, a recently launched online portal for 33,000 museums worldwide, said the Met's retail store and catalog will support its online efforts.

"From a fulfillment standpoint, they are light years ahead of most other cultural institutions," Price said. "They have a history of catalog sales, so the functionality of taking orders is known to them. I would say that the challenge they face is making sure that people know about the capability to purchase there so that they can grow into a healthy business."

While the current marketing plan is limited by budgetary constraints, the Met is taking steps to leverage its strengths. The museum trained its employees to inform through-the-door visitors about the site, and the museum will print the site's Web address on the estimated five million pieces of paper that go out each year.

The Met also plans to launch an affiliate program to link with online retailers rather than other art institutions and museums. At press time, the Met was close to signing a contract with an affiliate program provider, which executives declined to name.

The Met also may tap portals to peddle its merchandise in their gift sections. The museum this holiday season already successfully experimented with Yahoo and America Online's AOL service for banner ads. Offline, radio spots will air in selected markets.

On the site, there has been a studied effort to introduce stickiness for repeat visits. The MyMet calendar allows personalized lists of upcoming events and exhibitions. Similarly, the MyMet Gallery allows enthusiasts, scholars and students to create their own collection of Met-owned art. Soon, house ads will run on the site.

Building an e-mail list of site visitors is another task that increases association with consumers. Site users can visit the online guestbook and sign up for up to five e-mail newsletters on memberships, exhibitions, education news, special news and Met-related information.

But too much sophistication this early in the game could also disconcert an institution that's more familiar with the past.

"For instance, we're still working out internally how we're going to deal with all the e-mail that comes to us," Rafferty said, "but our intention is to be responsive to our audience."

Denise Canniff, the Met's manager for business development, confirmed that "we're leaning toward a third party to do our outbound mail."

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