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Archives & Museum Informatics

Zero to a Million $ in one year flat

Philip Getchell and Debra LaKind Manager, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, USA


The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston is proud of our efforts to develop an e-commerce Web site to complement our existing Web site and our retail/catalog business. Our institution's operating budget relies heavily on the success of this income-producing division, and the move onto the Web promises to strengthen our financial position by offering another channel for new and existing Museum customers to support us. Looking back, our first 18 months in the Web business have been an unequivocal success, with huge profitable and political success.

While our first attempt at selling online was, of course, as simple as a few posters listed on our web site, with an 800 number, to solicit orders to our existing operation, it slowly grew into a more integrated part of the existing sales operation. As our institution's technological sophistication progressed, so did the drive to build a more refined extension of our business. Interestingly enough, however, our first big push toward building a real Web store, was driven not by our retail wing, but by our need to streamline our wholesale operation.

So, as we continued to feature product related to our collection on our public Web sites, we developed a simple business-to-business site for use by our approved wholesale clientele. This decision to first develop apparently "less important" site was purely financial. Fact is, these 7000, mostly "Mom & Pop" operations are buying very few items at a time, but were demanding a large amount of our resources. Not only were we spending an inordinate amount of time on the phone for a relatively small amount of income, we were printing and sending them each a large, full-color, catalog - specifically produced for them. The design, printing, and distribution of this catalog were very expensive ($60,000) and time consuming. In an effort to save time and money, we needed put it on the Web. It was November, our holiday catalog was in the mail, and the next big project was the 1999 wholesale catalog. If we were going to do it on the Web instead, we needed to do it quickly.

The remarkably short time to develop this forced us to consider Yahoo! Store. Their model of providing service to an existing commerce application proved a great fit for us. We looked at what we knew we were fairly good at; we had product, copy, images, an fax-capable order processing center, and a great deal with our existing bank. The learning curve was not too steep, and the initial implementation time was incredibly short. As we mapped out our key steps, we were delighted to learn how easy our building of a simple store would be. All we really needed to skip the printing of this paper catalog was to upload the collateral we had already produced, and input some shipping rates, do some simple formatting of pre-defined templates, and we were, quite literally, in business. What we originally though might be huge hassles proved very easy. One issue was the need for this to be an exclusive wholesale-only Web site (pricing info was in there, for all browsers to see), but password-protection was already part of the Yahoo! Store application. There were disappointments, of course. Especially with the look and feel of the very plain format templates provided in the application. But, this initially was to be a tool for other business, not for the Museum-going public. So we just chose some colors and made the best of it. Other more fundamental shortcomings with their system were also identified, but were of very little consequence during this initial implementation. For instance, while Systems-integration, particularly for real-time inventory and credit-card transaction may represent the "holy-grail" of this endeavor, we did not really need to do these things right now. That is, they might be nice, but they seem really difficult and expensive. As we learned how easy it would be to build this wholesale site, we came to the realization that it may not be such a stretch to make a retail site at the same time. The product was EXACTLY the same inventory. The retail store would have different prices, and would not be password-protected, but otherwise a replica of the Wholesale site. It seemed like a no-brainer. And it worked. In fact, Yahoo! wouldn't have it any other way. They originally approached us wanting to add a prestigious institution to their new Yahoo! shopping community, and really were not very excited about us wanting to just do a little "hidden" store for businesses. After all, their model was to draw "anchor stores" to their major Yahoo! Shopping categories, to generate high traffic. So, while did not want our Wholesale site to be mentioned in this new shopping directory, it quickly figured as a large benefit to be promoted as the featured merchant in our category. So, it was decided; we would build and launch both sites, almost simultaneously! We quickly revisited our goals, and made sure we not making any huge mistakes in taking the Wholesale site and duplicating it for the retail business. Not surprisingly there were a many things not addressed, that we would have liked to solve, but we decided they were too tough for the first round. In addition to the aforementioned desire to integrate with the existing credit card and inventory systems, we would have liked to addressed the following:

  • the MFA's over-reaching goal of selling memberships (we did not wholesale these)
  • the Museum Art School's strong desire to implement web-based tuition payments
  • visitor services' expressed need for a reliable online event-ticketing solution

In any event, the online store was launched on December 19, 1998. We were elated to have actually done it in such a short time, and with no allocated budget. We had about 200 items up for sale, and were ready to go. And waited to see what would happen. But first we had to get some folks to the site.

To this end, we leveraged's <'s> already high traffic (about 25,000 visits/day). We began printing it in the catalogs, on the bags, in the member magazine, on our exhibition sites - anywhere that was free. And they came, and they bought. We actually got a few holidays sales!

As our fulfillment and customer service crew familiarized themselves with out Internet shoppers, we decided in the Spring of 1999 to take our site to the next level and offer our entire Fall catalog - with over 500 items - online. The then-current design of the Web site was not consistent with our branding efforts, and with the expectation of converting many of our catalog shoppers to internet shoppers, we realized that we had another obstacle to face: redesigning the online store.

The redesign was a hefty task to contemplate - our site was generated in RTML, a custom, dynamic version of HTML, so our novice Web team could not create a new look for the site without the help of an experience Web developer. With still no funds for outside help, we were extremely fortunate to find an RTML Web designer who was willing to strike a deal. He worked with our print designer and copy editor - staff members who were still working on Web tasks outside of their normal job descriptions - and used their comps and specification to create a new look for the store.

On August 15, 1999 the online store was launched with its new look, three-times as many items, more shipping options, and gift wrapping. With this, shoppers began buy! Since then, with little promotional effort beyond search engine registration and the free stuff, we have attracted over 1,500,000 hits and some attention from the press. Our Holiday season was quite successful, with total revenue reaching almost one million dollars in a six-month period.

The next few months hold many questions, about site growth, staffing, promotion, development, etc. not to mention the ongoing challenges related to administration of the ongoing store, including:

  • coordination of the shooting, scanning, collecting, and editing images for the Web
  • mastering the software....
  • faster order-processing/fulfillment
  • maintaining customer service / e-mail...
  • creating clever promotions/discounts
  • managing inventory / back-orders

Yet, perhaps the biggest challenge of all is to plan for the future...

All along, during the first year of this endeavor, we constantly referred to our Yahoo! Store as the "Throw-away solution." We were constantly thinking we could and would use Yahoo! Only as long as it took to choose, buy, and implement another product. We had that list of things that Yahoo! Store can't do, and we just figured we'd live without them, until we moved onto a different system.

As time goes by, we have learned a few good "workarounds", but we still dream of the day when our inventory and web systems are integrated. Also, while we did not see the promise of it early-on, our affiliation with Yahoo! Shopping's other 8000 merchants seems to bring in quite a bit of traffic and sales.

We strongly believe in constant consideration of viable alternatives. While Yahoo! Has proven a great fit during the first year, a change in either of our business models my warrant pursuit of other options. To this end, we have added development-track to our project plan for the coming year. In the next months we will setup and test a separate, free-standing e-commerce package, while still using Yahoo store. Building a separate parallel system, using a robust big-name e-commerce package as its front-end.