The Philly art museum has elevated its shops, linking them more than ever to the galleries, the community and the world

The new director of retail has opened two stores inside the museum, is now selling the work of 90 local artists and revamped the web site to sell around the world.

BY Kathleen Nicholson Webber

When celebrated architect Frank Gehry created the long-awaited CORE project addition to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, he carved out two spaces for retail stores just outside the galleries he envisioned. His prominent design underscores the importance of retail to the museum. Each store was to be a thoughtful reflection of the galleries it flanks.

Filling those stores was the job of Christine Kostyrka, who had just been appointed director of retail in 2019, and her buying and merchandising team. They were tasked with designing and outfitting the two new stores and felt the weight of the responsibility of measuring up to the architect’s work. The Design store aimed to celebrate modern and contemporary design and feature global and local jewelry, home décor, and apparel, while the early-American gallery store had to embody a craft feel, featuring papercuts, pottery, rugs, glass and quilted textiles.

The result is two newly merchandised brick-and-mortar shops that opened in May 2021, featuring the work of more than 90 local artists, along with a revamped main store, and an overhauled website that has enjoyed a dramatic rise in sales and set a new paradigm for retail at the museum. The stores are bringing a new infusion of money at a time when the museum is grappling with the impact of the pandemic.

“A retail store at a museum should be better than a regular retail store; your expectations should be higher because you’re in a museum,” Kostyrka said. “It should be the idea of learning something new and finding something you’ve never seen before.”Advertisement

» READ MORE: Shop here at the Museum

Kostyrka became just the third retail director there in 30 years. She was granted carte blanche to create a more elevated shopping experience. She approached these new shops like a start-up, employing the innovative, forward-thinking skills she sharpened during her 30-year retail career at top lifestyle brands such as Urban Outfitters.

“For whatever reason, I’ve joined companies just as they were transforming into something else,” Kostyrka said. “I would much rather work on that idea of building something from the ground up than walking into an established business.”

Revenue at museums comes from donors and endowments, memberships, and admissions, and often overlooked is the contribution of retail operations. According to the Museum Store Association, museums make from about 5% to 25% of annual cash flow from their stores. Some museums hire buying offices or retail experts such as Kostyrka and her team to handle purchasing in a more systematic fashion. In 2019, retail operation sales at the Philadelphia museum tallied $3.06 million and accounted for about 4.75% of total operating revenue and support, according to an audit of the institution’s finances.Advertisement

“Every museum has to decide whether or not they want to invest in retail,” said Alia Gray, sales director at Aesthetic Movement, a New York-based global buying office that sells to museum stores including the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the New York and San Francisco Museums of Modern Art. “They have to understand it is an investment and it is something that draws eyes and ears and profit to museums in a way that can be done with integrity.”

Books are displayed in the main store at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The museum has three shops, the Main Store, the American Gallery Store and the Design Store.
Books are displayed in the main store at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The museum has three shops, the Main Store, the American Gallery Store and the Design Store.MONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

Kostyrka is well-suited for her role; as much at home in her duties focused on commerce as those that demand a trained eye for art. The native New Yorker spent her youth roaming the Metropolitan Museum of Art, studied painting at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, and even taught art briefly. Feeling the pinch of the scarcity of jobs in the arts, Kostyrka changed directions and opened a home goods store on Long Island with no previous retail experience while in her 20s. That led to her three-decade run at such brands as Martha Stewart and Urban Outfitters, where she was the head of the $90 million home category.

At the Philadelphia museum, she would have to draw on all her experience. Not only was Kostyrka undertaking a crucial portion of what amounted to Gehry’s reinvigoration of the main museum building, built in 1928. But she also would have to do all that in the middle of a global economic meltdown.Advertisement

Soon after her arrival, the pandemic struck, shuttering the museum and drying up the foot traffic that its stores depended on. The revamped original store was open just six months when COVID-19 shut the museum down while the new stores were still under construction. Retail sales operations tumbled 40% in 2020 from the previous year to $1.8 million, according to the museum audit.

The Philly Moon Tarot T-Shirt by James Boyle at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The Philly Moon Tarot T-Shirt by James Boyle at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.MONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

Other U.S. museums took a similar hit. A 2021 study on COVID’s impact by the American Alliance of Museums found that three-quarters of museums reported, on average, a 40% drop in operating income in 2020. Museums were closed to the public an average of 28 weeks out of the year due to the health crisis, according to the study. The pandemic shuttered the Philadelphia Museum of Art for eight months in 2020. While 2021 sales figures are still being tallied, foot traffic is still not back to pre-pandemic levels, according to a museum spokesperson.

“After the pandemic, the stores were the last thing on everyone’s budget list,” Gray said of museums broadly.Advertisement

The pre-pandemic museum store formula was to rely on visitors and blockbuster shows to sell exhibit books and products. It could be profitable if you had blockbuster exhibits and hordes of visitors.

With the museum doors closed, Kostyrka and her team of three buyers, a merchandise manager, visual merchandiser, and operations manager pivoted to expanding the lackluster website, beefing up the selection from 300 products to 1,500 items and signing a contract for a new web platform.

The merchandising team had little experience with ecommerce but Kostyrka did. “We didn’t have a great product. There was no point of view and the photography wasn’t great,” Kostyrka said.

They worked with a graphic designer to create web pages that made it easier to shop and created product categories aimed at broadening the customer base. The site began drawing customers from all over the world. Web sales soared, increasing by 75% in 2020 from 2019, Kostyrka said, declining to share specific revenues.Advertisement

To create buzz about products, Kostyrka started Instagram and Facebook pages for the stores. “We have recently started experimenting with video via IG [Instagram] Reels and TikTok and the response has been great,” she said. “So much of what we sell has a story, and that story adds value so must be told visually and in an easily digestible, compelling way.”

Kostyrka said it was important that she be as careful in the curation of her offerings as the rest of the museum. Half of the shelves of the main store were previously stocked with books that sometimes sat for years, gathering dust. Now a carefully selected assortment of hard-to-find books from European and small, independent publishers makes up a quarter of inventory.

Buyer Choti Weiler discovered new publishers abroad, as well as local independent imprints such as Beehive Books in the city. Each store in the museum now has its own selection of culturally relevant books on such subjects as female designers and African American artists. Kostyrka worked with the museum’s education department to carry books from visiting authors. The result was that books have since become the retail operation’s top-selling category.

The art museum celebrates local artists

The pandemic stirred up more challenges than just diminished foot traffic. The museum wasn’t immune to the tangled supply chains that threatened other retail operations. Kostyrka increased her reliance on local artists and vendors, a move she had intended to make before the pandemic.

“Local has meant we have more opportunities for collaborations and custom designs,” she said. It also means a quick turnaround and fewer supply chain issues.

Local artists now account for 25% of the products in the total retail mix, Kostyrka estimated. She cites the example of Kristen Buck, an artist who makes pie plates, mugs and bowls with a mystical vibe.

Buck said Kostyrka discovered her work at a crafters market and invited her to the museum to talk about collaborating. “It is an amazing privilege to be in these stores, the ultimate compliment,” Buck said. The museum has sold dozens of her pieces and she said that allows her to support herself with her work.

“Many of the local Philly makers grew up going to this museum; it’s like their home,” Kostyrka said. “To be able to partner with them in that way and support them in that way has been a gift.”

The curators appreciated how the galleries and shops are tied together. “Christine and [merchandise manager] David Lincoln looked hard at the collection, talked to us about the installation plan, and made a big effort to find local artists making work that responded creatively to the objects in the galleries, from wood and glass and ceramics to textiles and painted objects,” said Kathleen A. Foster, senior curator of American Art. “It is also great to support our local artists, and brings a unique Philadelphia flavor to our visitors.”

Pencils on display in the main store at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Pencils on display in the main store at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.MONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

Drawing with the Diana pencil

Kostyrka has products that cost less than $5 and some that are $5,000. A bestseller resulted through a partnership with Blackwing pencils, a highly collectible brand and popular with art students who sketch when visiting the galleries. Blackwing worked with Lincoln to create an all-gold Diana pencil, embossed with an arrow, in honor of the Diana sculpture in the Great Stair Hall at the museum. A box of 12 costs $35.

Since launching the product in late 2019, the museum has sold close to 3,000 units, mostly to collectors in Japan, Korea, Australia and the U.K.

Analytics have shown that half of online purchases are made using a phone, so Kostyrka plans to launch a test of text message marketing this spring. She and her staff began using Lucky Orange, a heat mapping tool in April 2020 that gives a glimpse of what customers are searching for on the website in real time and includes functions that allows museum staff to assist with purchases in real time.

Kostyrka spends a lot of time on that app, answering questions to better understand the online customer. “COVID has shown us the necessity, not only from a retail perspective, but just from a content perspective, of chatting and engaging with potential visitors when they can’t come through the doors,” she said. “[Digital] is not an area where I think a lot of museums have invested money, but I think a lot of that is changing.”

This spring, Kostyrka aims to stage a pop-up market, inviting local artisans to sell at the museum. Like any start-up, Kostyrka plans to be nimble and reexamine her needs and new opportunities. One idea is to look at licensing opportunities to use their imagery on such lifestyle products as fashion or home items. “It gives us better margin, and unique products you can’t find anywhere else, which helps us turn the page from the expected to surprise and delight.”

So far, the administration is encouraged. The retail operations team prioritized telling Philadelphia stories, appealing to diverse audiences, insisting on ethical and sustainable manufacturing and responsible packaging, said Leslie Anne Miller, chair of the museum’s board.

“One of our stores celebrates our new galleries for early American art, and each time I go through, I smile knowing that everything it offers opens a little window on history and the collection,” Miller said. “That the store achieves this with style, humor, sophistication, and a love of the museum speaks to all we’ve been trying to achieve in the retail experience.”Published Jan. 23, 2022

Boathouse Sports — a true life apparel maker in Philly — has ambitious plans to grow

Former Olympic rower John Strotbeck dreams of employing thousands of people at his sports apparel factory in North Philadelphia. His firm is also opening five physical stores.

by Kathleen Nicholson Webber for the Inquirer
Dec 27, 2021

Workers sew garments at the Boathouse Sports plant floor on Hunting Park Avenue in Philadelphia. Boathouse is trying to reinvent itself with new products.
Workers sew garments at the Boathouse Sports plant floor on Hunting Park Avenue in Philadelphia. Boathouse is trying to reinvent itself with new products.JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

John Strotbeck estimates he’s outfitted millions of athletes through Philadelphia-based Boathouse Sports, selling a million units of outerwear and athletic gear to professional, college, and high school athletes annually for the last 20 years.

Now he is betting that some of those athletes, now in their 30s to 50s, will buy Boathouse apparel for nostalgia reasons, reminding them of the “best years of their lives.”

The pandemic torpedoed Boathouse’s business in 2020, as it did to many others. Between the state restrictions placed on nonessential businesses and the halt to team sports for longer than expected, Boathouse could no longer rely on its typical customers.

“COVID cost us 50% of our business over the course of about 18 months,” said Strotbeck, whose company adapted in part by making tens of thousands of masks for doctors, nurses, and Wawa workers.

And while business has now almost entirely recovered, Strotbeck saw big changes in consumer behavior and preferences and felt the firm had to diversify its sales and marketing channels.

The plan: continue outfitting teams but pivot to more consumer channels. Strotbeck recognized he needed help building a consumer brand from the company he launched in 1985, between his appearances for the U.S. Olympic rowing team at the 1984 and 1988 Games.

“I was smart enough to know what I didn’t know,” Strotbeck said. So, 13 months ago, he hired a CEO, Cindy DiPietrantonio, former chief operating officer of Sidney Kimmel’s Jones Apparel Group who managed seven acquisitions for the $4.5 billion company and a multitude of labels like Stuart Weitzman, Nine West, and Jones New York. She also led jewelry brand Alex and Ani.

The ambitious 90-day plan that DiPietrantonio started with had to be tossed out when COVID-19 lingered. The firm’s labor force fell off drastically, Strotbeck was sidelined with the virus, and a malware attack had the new CEO scribbling financials on the back of a napkin.

Big changes are coming

It took some time to steady the ship, but now its e-commerce consumer business is ramping up, currently 10% of sales — representing a 34% rise over last year. The company has set a goal of 30% for online’s share of total sales for next year.

Cindy DiPietrantonio, CEO at Boathouse Sports, poses for a portrait at its headquarters in Philadelphia on Oct. 20, 2020.
Cindy DiPietrantonio, CEO at Boathouse Sports, poses for a portrait at its headquarters in Philadelphia on Oct. 20, 2020.DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

And it is investing in brick-and-mortar stores — this fall in Nantucket, Mass., and in the spring, five additional stores in other tony waterfront towns like Annapolis, Md.

“Our goal is to make it more accessible by selling in key retailers, Boathouse branded pop-ups as well as and through collaborations,” DiPietrantonio said.

Nantucket was a natural because the firm has a strong customer base in Boston, a big rowing town. Boathouse sold to Nantucket’s TownPool, whose owner wore the product as a prep school and college athlete. And when inventory thinned there, it got a lift in sales on the website in the Boston area.

The CEO also beefed up her team and hired a director of e-commerce and marketing, directors of operations and finance, and merchandising and design associates. The firm uses an agency to help with search engine optimization (SEO) and pay-per-click advertising while in-house employees handle other digital marketing and social media.

DiPietrantonio also spent lots of time listening to consumers and learning the brand’s DNA.

“Our consumers have an emotional attachment to what they wore in high school or prep school, so we’ve made a few tweaks to styles and we have branded it with Boathouse,” she said.

Top sellers

There’s a new version of Strotbeck’s first rowing jacket, the Gore-tex Stevenson jacket ($108-$264), a refashioned long swim parka that just hit the site ($198), and in 2022, the restyled retro Coaches Only jacket ($168).

Top sellers include the “trou” compression (rowing shorts, $38 to $88) that customers wear to run, bike, or row in, the journey short ($52), and pants ($68), its version of a jogger.

Last spring the firm launched the Tailwind hoodie ($78-$88) and sold more than 1,000 units by repeatedly tweaking the product with new colors and patterns.

Founder John Strotbeck helped package an order of face masks for shipping at the Boathouse Sports factory in North Philadelphia on April 14, 2020. The company, which normally manufactures custom sports apparel, switched to making personal protective equipment during the early phases of the coronavirus pandemic.
Founder John Strotbeck helped package an order of face masks for shipping at the Boathouse Sports factory in North Philadelphia on April 14, 2020. The company, which normally manufactures custom sports apparel, switched to making personal protective equipment during the early phases of the coronavirus pandemic.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

DiPietrantonio has worked with the design team to introduce new prints using a technology that Strotbeck invested in almost 15 years ago to compete with shoe brands called sublimation. It’s the process by which a digital image is fused to the performance fabric using a heat transfer process and expensive equipment.

The company added sublimation in 2007 to fend off the shoe brands like Nike, Under Armour, and Adidas that ate away at its college team business. It was a relatively unknown process but now accounts for 70% of uniforms. Strotbeck estimates he has invested $1 million in equipment alone to be able to customize apparel.

» READ MORE: This Norristown sports gear maker took a ‘Just Do It!’ attitude and whipped Nike in court

While the athletic apparel sector is wildly competitive, DiPietrantonio said there is room for more players. “Our competition is not the shoe brands and it’s not Lululemon, Athleta, or Outdoor Voices. I think there’s white space between those two categories for a quality, authentic outerwear and accessories brand. And that’s really where we fit.”

There are two groups the brand resonates with: the former athletes who wore Boathouse, and the 15- to 25-year-olds seeking an alternative to the large brands.

“They’re looking for companies that represent more than just making a buck,” said Strotbeck. “We make everything in the USA. That’s important to people. It should be. It’s more important now post-COVID than it was pre-, being a socially responsible company.”

DiPietrantonio said the firm pays at least $12 an hour for sewers — a rise from $10 pre-pandemic — along with health insurance and a 401(k). “We gave out [pay] increases in 2021 and will in 2022,” she said. “My goal is not to be competitive but to have some of the best wages in the industry.”

While many companies are dealing with far-off supply problems, Boathouse’s pain points have been closer to home: finding enough local factory workers and navigating the domestic trucker shortage.

Still, the firm has been lucky. “Where most companies are dealing with 14 to 19 weeks from order to customer delivery, we are dealing with five to seven,” DiPietrantonio said.

Pre-COVD Boathouse had 225 employees, 170 at the factory alone. After the pandemic drained the workforce, the firm now totals 170 and 80 at the factory.

“We are finding it very difficult to get people to come back or just hire new people,” Strotbeck said, despite the safety precautions in place.

The company is offering finder’s fees for new hires and training for new factory employees. Boathouse has had to find local factories to outsource work to fill orders or turn them down.

“This is a national issue; it might be an international issue,” he said.

Its current 100,000-square-foot facility was intentionally chosen where he could find apparel craftspeople. Boathouse was courted by officials in Tennessee, South Carolina, and Kentucky to move there in the late 1990s when the firm had outgrown its 20,000-square-foot Wissahickon Industrial Center facility.

“We made an educated guess that, while pay was lower in the South, it would be hard to find workers in a few years as the auto industry and data processing were investing heavily in the regions. We decided to stay in Philly.”

He took out a map and put pins on where all his employees lived. The company opened its Hunting Park Avenue facility in 2000, hoping eventually to quadruple the production capacity.

That hasn’t yet happened. But “I have this dream. I’d love to employ thousands of people in Philadelphia, and I think that is achievable.”

“I know product and she knows brands, consumers, and how to grow a business, particularly in the retail side,” said the founder, deferring to his new CEO. “ She’s definitely going to take us to very big places.”