Sell what people are asking you to sell

At work we sell approx 50 types of goods or service. We sell goods in our shops for example and our services include permitting, steam train rides, educational workshops and much more. Transactions none the less. I regularly get asked how to start a new revenue stream. For me the answer is simple for a good proportion of the time: Start by selling goods or services that people are already asking us for. Simple.


Case in point are the studios at M Shed. The original purpose was for the delivery of education activity. When not in use, staff would use the space for internal activity, meetings and the like. There was wriggle room for different uses. Any use that wasn’t the original intention or primary purpose I call a “by-product”. Sometime during 2015 we started to get enquiries for hiring a space that was smaller than our event suite. The event suite on the top floor was originally the only space for hire. We soon agreed with the learning team that they and us would both have access to the booking diary and use the space for education or private hire aka a new by-product. Every year since 2015 we have seen growth in the booking of this space which generates something like 5% additional revenue at this point. We didn’t transform or innovate, we simply responded to a user need and make a healthy stream of revenue. 

What are people asking you for that perhaps could be the start of tens of thousands of pounds?

How little can we afford to grow?

I regularly get emails from folks who have been instructed to get in touch with me to learn how I make money for our service. Firstly, it isn’t me making money. I help wrangle the conditions for our teams to do their best work and in turn revenue is generated. The services we provide are either designed to generate revenue OR making revenue is a by-product of something else we do. I’m sure that fancy business cases, spreadsheets and presentations work but I always start a simple question to my boss:


“What is the bottom line that you need from us?” 


Once I have that single figure I can then set about to see how things need to change to respond to the goal. Better still I then internalise the goal as “how little can we afford to grow?“. Surely you’d think I would be always seeking the maximise right? wrong. Growing too much too quickly always has an impact on our resources. Sure we can sell more events but we would suddenly need to close public spaces in core hours which negatively impacts our public offer. I could insist our retail only stocked products in the £25+ region but alienate a large chunk of people who are in the £5-£25 region. The list of things I could do is endless. 


So instead of having no constraints I prefer to have clear constraints grounded in walking a fine line of making money without stepping too far. Find out what is a sensible level of business by asking similarly positioned services to give you a benchmark. For example we need our retail to be in the 50p to £1 spend per head region, host on average three events per week and attract 400-500 filming days per year.


Grow by all means but not at any cost. 

Honda nuts anticipate user need

Photo showing close up of two nuts on Honda CBF motorcycle used to adjust chain tension
Close-up photo to show two nuts that are used to adjust the chain tension of my Honda

My motorcycle chain had become too loose and needed adjusting over the weekend. A friend came over to show me how to do it. The process was loosen the wheel nut (large nut in the above photo to right) , then first loosen the outer nut and then turn the second nut until the correct tension was found. What I found very interesting was the consideration Honda clearly had for us home fixers. Normally the two nuts would be the same size but most people own one spanner set with each tool being the next size down/up thus making it impossible to adjust the nuts at the same time. Honda have obviously considered this and to my surprise the second nut is the next size up thus allowing me to use the next spanner in the set and make the adjustment without having to borrow another spanner from a neighbour.

This small detail to me demonstrates how Honda have carefully considered the “real” world and met my user need before I even knew it. They could have used identical nuts knowing that would likely result in the user having to stop the job and seek out the same size spanner but instead they did the difficult work (two different nuts on the same sized thread and adding one more different part ). Thanks Honda!

Show me the price

During a trip to Manchester I took a few minutes to walkthrough the shop with the manager. This was an aside to the main reason for the visit but I spotted something immediately. Most of the products either weren’t priced or their related pricing point of sale wasn’t close enough. Hiding in plain sight was a big hurdle for the potential customer. It’s human nature to not ask staff about the price. Show me the price so I have as little friction as possible when considering a product.

Retail is 1000 little details like this.

100% growth in retail

The 22nd March 2019 officially marks the day our retail business  revenue hit 100%  growth since 2014-15 which you can see in the performance spreadsheet. A proud moment for the service. I want to kick-off by thanking the retail team who have worked their socks off and have been up for the challenge since day 1 in 2015. Also none of our success would be possible without the support of the other teams who contribute to the effort including Retail Thinking, user research, design & marketing, digital, documentation, programming and operations. Retail is a living breathing example of our team-of-teams approach to solving problems. Why try to do everything yourself when you have some of the best talent in other parts of the service willing to rolling their sleeves up. 
Transformation is not easy but our goal has been to grow the business year on year using the four retail pillars of Buying, Staff skills, Visual merchandising (VM) and Performance.  The Culture team need to make or save £436,000 between 2017-2021 as part of the wider Council savings programme. Retail is a core player in this growth. 
A quick recap of the marathon to date:
2015-16

  • understand the retail business and begin to destroy and rebuild from the ground up (discovered we were running at a loss) 
  • Returned to the simple principle that “we should sell what people buy”  
  • 2016-17 – return to profitability and aim to maximise existing resources
  • 2017-18 – build the case for long-term investment including roadmap for shop refits at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery and M Shed and further staff roles (starting with a Buyer)
  • 2018-19 Ship projects that deliver against our objectives – bring the annual roadmap to life instead of it just being a paper exercise. 
  • 2019-20 increase the pace and profitability hi

We expect our services to be the best they can possibly be in our sector. Not just better than before or better than our nearest comparable museums. We should be as good as the best of the best anywhere on the planet. 
We have made over 300 changes to the retail business. We have made every mistake possible and will make more mistakes in the future. 
In no particular order I present a number of key changes:

2015

  • Spent lots of time watching how customers used the shop and listening to the retail teams views on everything
  • Hired the services of an expert – Retail Thinking are a a consultancy who specialise in heritage retail and have been key to accelerating our growth. I have engaged Retail Thinking to help me learn the business of retail and act essentially as a head of retail. Money well spent
  • Visit dozens of retail businesses all over the world and understand what works and doesn’t – I cannot stress enough how important it is to just watch other retail in action 
  • Ask for help – I have contacted and had help from many many amazing people in the sector. A special hat tip to Genevieve, Lycia, John and Alex 
  • 04/05/2015 rolled out Shopify POS as until now the staff EPOS didn’t collect product sales history or have any useful reporting – choose Shopify as it is affordable, great 24/7 support and has scalability 
  • Introduce Performance as a key strand Collect, Share, Use – Collect data , share it widely and especially publicly and make an effort to use that data. Sharing our performance data has led to invaluable collections. Performance is one of the four key pillars of retail. The others are Buying, staff skills and visual merchandising. Thinking of everything we do through these four strands helps keep us organised 
  • Removed the £5 minimum limit on card payments which immediately boosted sales 
  • Instead of calling the retail manager or me to get permission every time a customer had a non standard enquiry  I told all staff that if the decision has a value of £100 or less they are free to make the decision – rapidly speeds things up and improves customer service. Typically the customer wants to do a deal on bulk orders 
  • 28/09/2015 started using user researcher 
  • Completed team review
  • 9/10/2015 launched first bespoke range using La Belle Dame Sans Merci
  • 04/11/2015 completed a partial shop refit at Bristol Museum & Art gallery as a small investment with Shop Services
  • 04/11/2015 had first online order 

2016 

  • Discovering the Association for Cultural Enterprises who are a bunch of super talented people who are super happy to help us improve 
  • Focused on increasing awareness of the shops including putting glass cabinets in high traffic parts of the museums 
  • Worked on reducing the number of products and keeping our top 100 products in stock at all times 
  • Introduced exhibition inspired products which until now had been too weak 
  • Sales grew 20% compared to the previous year

2017

  • Focused on improving the online shop by handing the responsibility to the digital team – thanks Fay!
  • Experimented with pop up shops over holiday periods
  • 31 August Launched Guide to The Art Collection
  • 8th July Accidentally turned off the ice cream freezer and lost all the products …whoops 
  • Used spare fittings to give Blaise at least  
  • Installed a number of lit glass cabinets at M Shed to raise awareness of the offer at the opposite end of the museum 
  • Started (and continue) to work with Jane Le Bon for key visual merchandising dates 

2018

  • Banksygate – sorry ! 
  • 30/06/2018 Refit Bristol Museum & Art gallery which included removing the stockroom to enable 20% more selling floor space – funded by Bristol Museum Development Trust [sales ended 52% up on previous year] and refit by ARJ-CRE8 
  • Introduced the new role of Buyer which has been a fantastic decision and the benefits are already showing
  • Experiments with pricing including bulk discounts for buying The Guide to the Art Collection
  • Sales 100% increase compared to 2014/15 for 2018/19 

2019 (current year to do)

  • 28/03/2019 launched M Shed Souvenir Guide which is the second print publication of its type. The original wasn’t popular largely due to a weak cover 
  • Refit at M Shed due in July
  • 1/04/2019 Introduced new retail at Red Lodge and The Georgian House
  • M Shed underperforms when you consider our visit figure so will be a focus for the year
  • Publish a souvenir guide book to Bristol Museum & Art Gallery
  • Consider refit at Blaise Castle Museum for 2020
  • Let’s ship more projects and make a ruckus

Do email me if you have any further questions, advice or want to come and visit at zak dot mensah at bristol dot gov uk

PS At the time of finalising these notes Nipsey Hussle on 31 March died. I am a big hip-hop fan and listened to Victory Lap lots throughout 2018/19 and find business tips/books/ideas from rap. RIP.

100% increase in retail

Friday 22nd March 2019 marks a fantastic milestone as our retail officially tipped over the 100% growth in revenue since taking over in 2015. A huge thanks to all our customers, teams and those who have helped us make every possible mistake and still keep on rolling.

Set your social media free

We trust our workforce (yes including volunteers who are super critical) to fly the flag for us day in and day out. To represent our brand in the flesh and to tell the stories of our organisation. Oh and no small feat to ensure the safety of both the public and our collections. Every interaction with our customers at our venues, on the phone or by email is an opportunity to delight. Our museums alone welcome over a million people a year.

Yet nearly every organisation still insists on holding tightly to social media with a select few as guardians. Worried about tone of voice or that something bad may happen. We are happy to let folks loose in the physical environment (and again keep us all safe) and tell amazing stories to people, protect rare and priceless objects but not tweet ?! Who better to tell stories online than the very workforce who do this for us on a daily basis.

Please set your social media free. Provide simple guidelines [see our social media principles] and training then bring the rest of the workforce online. Social media wants to be free. It will pay you back with the stories people will tell that they already know captivate your audience.

10 years on Twitter

According to Twitter, today marks 10 years on the platform for me @zakmensah. I remember resisting for over a year having grown tired of signing up for platforms that never gained traction beyond the early adopters. I’ve never been that interested in being first to the party. I was at Jisc at the time and traveling the UK for events and conferences was a big part of my role. I started to notice that the various unconference/meet-ups were being organised on twitter and I felt left out. I wanted to know which pub was the pub folks were gathering at. As with all new platforms I didn’t get the point for awhile but once I started to discover groups in the pub I was set ha. Fast forward 10 years and I’m  glad I jumped on twitter and its evolution has been interesting to watch. From nerds to the mainstream. In the same period of time many other social platforms have risen and fallen including Google Wave, myspace, snapchat and many others I’ve long forgotten.
I have met great people on twitter, some I have yet to meet in person and others I have hollered at when in their country. I have had wonderful work opportunities, learned a bunch and its often the first port of call when I’m stuck and need advice for work. I like the little tribes such as museumhour and musetech  and following the boxing or F1 for the wit and live emotion.
I like to share on twitter and also keep lots of things private. I can pick and choose as I please which is the whole point. For example I never post family photos and try to avoid tweeting much when at the pub for obvious reasons. Tweets wash over the timeline so I don’t pay too much attention to crafting messages or take myself too seriously. But I do want to live my life a bit on the web as a dry serious me online would be a dull shame.
Happy birthday to the 10 year @zakmensah version of me. Oh and the oldest tweet I can find is me saying hello to someone’s mum.

Good enough

I was just publishing my annual blog post for my reading list and my wife asked “How many people actually read your blog?”. I responded with “I dunno let’s see”. Except I can’t actually show her as it turns out my analytics stopped recording a long time ago. My bad. I decided ages ago not to bother looking at the analytics as I didn’t want to be fixated on growing per se. I write very niche posts here and at the Culture team labs blog for people like me. And there must only be a few hundred people like me across the planet. I know that the right people stumble across here as I regularly get email to ask me questions, jump on a skype call with folks across the world or to invite me to speak at a conference.

The aim for me is to share my experiences for people like me and it appears to work. That is good enough for me.