The Gallery Shops, National Gallery of Art

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In November of 2013 the National Gallery of Art launched its redesigned online store, In addition to receiving a new look and feel, the shops site was completely redone and began operating on a Software as a Service (SaaS) platform. The Gallery had just launched the redesign of its public site in the spring of last year, an extensive undertaking itself and an important step forward for the institution. What is notable about the new online store is not only its design and operation, but the way it reflects the museum’s mission and works in partnership with the public site. In this age where the administrative and revenue-generating departments of museums can be so thoroughly separated from the collection and programming efforts, it is refreshing to see an institution where collaboration among professionals of various types worked to create a shop that people from all parts of the museum —as well as more broadly in the museum community—have praised and enjoy. 

The online store project was aided and supported by the Gallery’s Digital Outreach department, all the units of IT, Counsel, Editorial, Education, Press and Public Information, Digital Imaging, Membership and Development, and Protocol and Events, as well as the operational areas of Finance, Procurement, and all of the Retail division. 

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The institution and the mission are represented in a few key ways. Visually, the design of the online store employs the same navy and oyster palette used on the public site, as well as other common design elements, such as the typefaces and the gradients used to identify selections in the roll-over top navigation menu. The Gallery Shops header is composed of the three National Gallery locations—the form of the West Building, the form of the East Building, and a stand of trees representing the Lindens planted around the Sculpture Garden. The online shop design feels very much a part of the overall Gallery image, while still functioning optimally as a shopping tool, with store branding and features.

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Throughout, reflections of the Gallery and its physical experience are evident. In checkout,, there is a call-out to register to earn Mercury Program points. The Mercury Program is a rewards program where activities such as registration and purchasing result in the awarding of points that convert to dollars off subsequent purchases. The program was named for the exquisite Mercury sculpture in the Gallery’s Rotunda, as a representation not only of the Gallery’s most notable identifying symbol, but also as a reference to the Roman god Mercury’s role as a patron of learning, the arts, and commerce. Another symbol recognizable to Gallery visitors is the eagle image, which is often used within the museum buildings and on print collateral.  Its presence in the store site footer reinforces the connection with the museum’s physical spaces and helps maintain the institution’s branding. 

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The Gallery Shops site supports the NGA mission primarily by making Gallery scholarship available to the widest possible audience. The goal of the online store is eventually to offer all in-print titles of Gallery collection catalogues, exhibition catalogues, conservation journals, and other research material to the public, both in the United States and abroad.  More effective than a retail store in this effort, an online shop increases the dissemination of scholarly, as well as more popular titles. The shops site was designed to feature exhibition material, and a prominent spot on the top navigation is devoted to items related to what is on view, In the Books & Media category,, a subcategory for Current Exhibition Catalogues brings forward the publications for ongoing shows. To support the permanent collection and research, the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts (CASVA) books are given a subcategory as well.  Other mission-related features of the site include sections on the product pages called “About” where greater depth on topics is presented.  About the Artist, About the Exhibition, About the Period, About the Author, and About the Original are bodies of text related to the works that have been reproduced for sale or the scholars whose research is presented.


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As an online store, the new Gallery Shops site has been extremely effective for the institution. In the first two months, the new site took more than half of the number of orders it recorded for all of the year prior. For the month of December, sales increased 211%, orders increased 156%, and average transaction increased 21% over the same month in the previous year. Other than in sales and orders, which are measured by internal Gallery retail reporting, the new online store immediately began shattering old benchmarks. Twelve days after the new site launched, conversion rate went from sub 1% (0.04%) to 2.8%. Revenue went up 50%, average transaction went up 52%, time spent on the site went up 77%, pages viewed per visit went up 124%, and the bounce rate went down 52%. This is compared to the stats of the last month of the old site using Google Analytics.

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As a web presence, the site has the features of a sophisticated online store but the specific interests of a major fine arts museum. The product images were created at a very large size and display standard at 497×497, In addition, all images are zoomable on roll-over to 1600×1600 for minute inspection of an item’s details.

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Multiple images are offered for the display of products such as scarves shown in different styles, for the assembled versus boxed views of children’s merchandise, or to view the design on the reverse side of a mug. The copy section includes separate areas for text and specifications so users can easily find the information they are looking for. There are cross sells (“You May Also Like”), the ability to add to a Wish List or Gift Registry on product pages, and icons for easy social sharing or emailing to friends.

On the category and search pages, a highly-organized left navigation allows quick refinements of results, In addition to standards such as item type, price, and materials, options for Artist, Style or Period, and Subject allow for more art-oriented searching. Results can be seen in total (“View All”) or by page, and can be sorted by criteria such as name or price. A running band of Customer Favorites appears at the foot of each category page. Top-level categories are logically displayed, with subcategories accessible from the roll-over top navigation. There are colorful circle-shaped badges on the category and product pages that indicate key criteria to shoppers: New Arrivals, Best Sellers, Sale, Award Winners, and items produced by the NGA. 

The My Account area allows customer self-service for a variety of tasks, including looking up order history, tracking a package, editing personal details or email preferences, adding to an address book, checking a credit balance, applying a gift certificate, or creating a gift registry or wish list.  Shop locations within the Gallery buildings, along with descriptions, are listed, and an 800 number for Customer Service is prominently displayed on the top navigation, In Checkout the cart offers three ways to receive discounting: using a promotion code, using a Member code, or using a Gallery staff department name for museum employee discounts, The cart displays the stock status of each item, with a final real-time inventory check on submission of the page.

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The attention to user concerns does not stop at the page level. For enhanced safety and security, the level of protection on the site goes beyond Tier 1 Payment Card Industry (PCI-DSS) requirements and SSL encryption. The Gallery chose to develop the site as Federal Information Processing Standards (FIPS) compliant, encrypt Personally Identifiable Information (PII) at rest when stored in the database as well as when it travels over the Internet, and serve the entire site, not just checkout, over HTTPS, without any cookies or session data being sent over HTTP even upon site redirect from HTTP to HTTPS. These measures are likely unique among museum store sites, not to mention the online retailing world as a whole, and offer exceptional security when using the site and storing personal data.

All together, with the build collaboration, the usefulness and effectiveness of the site for its purpose, the mission-related focus, and the innovations in privacy and security, is an example of a superior professional web presence that supports the activity of selling the museum’s publications and reproductions and generating revenue for the National Gallery.  It also is an example of how a not-for-profit organization adapted a commercial product never before used for a museum and customized it to its specific needs, with noteworthy results.

The project had an unintended effect of helping advance technology within the Gallery and encouraging modernization. It required the Gallery’s IT department to transform in important ways, including allowing data to held in the cloud, creating a robust multi-system test environment, standardizing to one credit card payment gateway across the organization, purchasing a new file transfer program to support the data integrations between the existing merchandise and financial backend systems and the shops SaaS site, and upgrading the shipping management software, among other areas. The fully collaborative posture of the Gallery and its staff made such a transformation possible, and The Gallery Shops now have a state-of-the-art ecommerce presence and income potential for years to come.