Retail: Wacky wares in a worthy cause: Offering a combination of oddity and elegance has enabled the Museum Store to cash in on our heritage

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The Independent Online
EVEN BEFORE thieves swooped on the National Museum in Oslo to make off with the Munch masterpiece The Scream, shoppers in London were loading up with inflatable rubber versions of the famous tortured image at pounds 24.95 a time.

Einstein wristwatches (motto: 'time is relative') and books of Shakespeare's Insults are also proving popular among those in search of the tastefully wacky gift. People who would not be seen dead buying a whoopee cushion or a willy warmer are giving their friends an educated chuckle by shopping at the Museum Store.

Its London shops, in Covent Garden, Knightsbridge and Hampstead, are a showcase for products from museums, heritage sites and art foundations round the world. Imitation temple lamps from southern India and elephant bells in perfect pitch, both from the Crafts Museum in Delhi, are among the latest products to find their way into the stores.

The first Museum Store opened in Covent Garden in 1988. Business has been building steadily, with turnover increasing by 230 per cent since its first year of trading. With the opening of two stores last year, sales in the coming year are expected to double, with turnover exceeding pounds 500,000. Profits are used to help museums and galleries improve their performance, through grants and training.

The Museum Store is a retail success story, even though the profit it generates is not boosting corporate coffers. The stores are run by the Charities Advisory Trust, as part of its remit to promote awareness and support for museums.

Hilary Blume, director of the trust, is a canny businesswoman who could have flourished in the commercial sector, but she had no appetite for traditional company culture and has chosen to direct her 'irrepressibly entrepeneurial' appetite to helping charities.

Nineteen years ago, when working for War on Want, she imported Coptic crosses from famine-ravaged Ethiopia. The crosses were featured in a Sunday newspaper and when orders flooded in, she made another buying trip - with her 15-month-old baby - to meet the demand. The crosses were bought for just over pounds 1 each and sold at pounds 45, generating money for famine relief.

The incident typifies her energy and her ability to spot a winner when it comes to raising cash and awareness. The concept of the Museum Store grew out of her work with museums. She saw a gap in the market, did some research and moved to fill it. 'I had seen some pretty impressive things at various museum shops across the country, so I thought it would be wonderful to bring them together in one place. At the time, shopping was becoming more standardised, with the same stuff available in different stores. When people are buying gifts, they are always casting about for something unusual and - crucially - something that doesn't declare how much it costs.'

The trust is keen to spread its expertise: the third annual Heritage Retail Training Programme, a two-day course including workshops on finances, customer care, display and active selling, and merchandising, starts tomorrow. In tune with Ms Blume's philosophy, it is high on practical advice and low on jargon-laden theories. She can wax lyrical on pricing policy: 'Avoid anything ending in 7 or 3. It always jars. It's a rotten price. It distracts the shopper.'

Ms Blume, aided by Lawrence White, the trust's retail development officer, relishes selecting the eclectic mix of goods for the Museum Stores. They must be stocked by a museum shop, or based on something in a museum's collection. 'If it's good, and we think we can sell it, we'll take it,' she explains. 'We are always on the lookout for new items, rotating stock all the time. We have a lot of regular customers, so this helps keep the shopping experience fresh for them.'

Sentiment does not get a look-in. 'If a line isn't selling, we drop it.'

She seems to have an insatiable appetite for seeking out the quirky or the classy, and will make a point of dropping into museum shops when on holiday. 'We see our job as not just helping museum shops but also selling more of the product. We always like to include a story about where the item comes from, which can whet people's appetites for visiting particular museums.'

The best known programme of the Charities Advisory Trust is Card Aid, which is designed to sell and produce Christmas cards that ensure charities get the highest possible share of proceeds.

The success of the CAT's programme is setting the pace in this part of the world. Earlier this month, the Museum Stores Association was over from the United States. Last week, the trust hosted a European symposium on museum retailing. Both stopped off at the flagship Museum Store at Covent Garden.

(Photograph omitted)