Published: May 17, 2021
Old Sturbridge Village (OSV) recently announced that Ellen Taviano has been named the new director of retail operations and gift shops, an appointment that retained retail operations after the division was outsourced for many years. Readers may recognize Taviano, who had, for 24 years, been the general manager of retail and licensed products at Winterthur Museum. She has been tasked with elevating and enhancing the visitor experience, so we wanted the inside word on what that might entail.
Congrats on the new post! When did you start?
March 2. Some days it seems like yesterday and then other days it feels like I have been here forever. Everyone here has been so welcoming.
What prompted your move?
Jim Donahue, president and chief executive officer of Old Sturbridge Village. He reached out to me to talk about my thoughts on museum retail. The OSV retail was changing. It had been outsourced for more than ten years and the village wanted to bring it back in-house. We just kept talking over a couple of months. I was totally impressed with his vision, his communication style, and his team – they all seemed to really enjoy working here and believed in him too! This was all during Covid when the world was in total disarray, but he was so calm and focused – it was so refreshing.
What are the unique challenges historic museums face when it comes to retail?
It is a balance – finding merchandise to sell in the stores that directly relates to the institution while also being something the customer wants to buy. For example, horehound candy. Horehound was a very common flavor in the 1830s but not a favorite of most visitors. I don’t think most people even know what it is or have ever tasted it. They prefer a flavor that is more common today – bubblegum! We need to offer both but I know that I will be reordering a lot more bubblegum flavor! A museum store is a perfect example of how people’s styles and taste change over time, whether it be candy or clothing styles. As a museum retailer, we are just bridging the gap between the past and the present.
Is the variety of merchandise slanted evenly between kids and adults?
Most of our food items are purchased by both age groups – who can resist chocolate peanut butter fudge? A lot of the visitors who come to the village are families with children. We try to offer something to satisfy the children – historic toys, candy sticks and books but hope that the mom or dad (or grandparent) finds something they like too. We are highlighting bees and gardening right now.
If you had to name one or two of the top sellers, what would they be?
A bag of half a dozen chocolate chip cookies is the number one item day in and day out. We bake them fresh in the bakery below the store – and use the same recipe the village has used for 75 years! Our top item made by the OSV craftspeople is the wood-fired medium mug. I like big mugs to drink my tea and this is a perfect size for me. The village has cows, sheep, pigs and chickens wandering through the fields and spring brings all of those adorable babies, so we are also selling a lot of plush lambs, chicks and pigs.
Old Sturbridge Village is such a unique place – how will the retail reflect that?
Old Sturbridge has buildings collected from all over New England. For the stores, I am focusing on using New England vendors – pillows from Vermont, braided rugs from Rhode Island, T-shirts printed by a company in Connecticut, jams and jellies from Massachusetts, just to name a few. Still looking for something from Maine but I’ll find it!
Foodways is such an important part of the interpretation here that I am looking to increase the unique food items we sell – chocolate bars that have lavender that was grown in the herb garden at the village. We sell honey that is collected from hives at the village and maple syrup that was processed at the edge of the property. Rose water was used in the 1830s as a sweetener much like we use vanilla today. We are now selling rose water made by a Shaker Village so you can go home and try it in your recipe.
What changes will you make?
Oh, there are lots of changes but also lots staying the same! The store should be an extension of the village and part of the visitor’s experience. The feel of the store, the look of the store, the items sold in the store, all need to complete the visitor’s experience. We are working to make the store a bigger, more integrated part of the Old Sturbridge Village experience. I am working closely with the amazing village craftsmen to make them be a part of what is selling in the stores. We are working on trying new items, adding some color to pottery and doing special orders of pieces the craftsmen have made before.
Like most museums, I imagine OSV is trying to broaden the demographics of its visitorship. What role does retail have in that larger picture?
We are trying to provide interesting products for all ages and demographics along with the added accessibility through online shopping. Have you seen the village postings on Instagram? Covid just sped up the process but the village is putting out great digital content to increase their customer following. The stores are just doing the same thing by providing multiple ways to shop.
Is there currently an online shop? Can you talk about the online component?
Currently there is not an online store but that is definitely something we will be adding. Everyone wants to shop online – every age has become comfortable with it. My 85-year-old dad shops online. It will allow the Old Sturbridge Village craft products to be purchased from anywhere in the country. How exciting is that?
-Madelia Hickman Ring
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
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