Innovative Retailer – London Transport Museum


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The Name: The shop at the London Transport Museum

The Place: The throbbing heart of the Metropolis – otherwise known as the old flower market at Covent Garden, WC2.

The Story: The shop attached to the London Transport Museum is a mecca for…

Wait! A museum shop – this is a joke right? Let me put on my special geek pullover. Stay with me. I repeat it is a mecca and not only for the transport spotters that you would expect. Trendsters make a beeline for it too to get their hot little hands on the quirky and witty products that the shop and its designers produce from their family of iconic brands. And it’s the use of the brands that we are interested in.

Brands like? Get a load of this for a triple whammy – the roundel (Tube logo), the Tube map and the typeface associated with Transport for London. That’s a worldwide set of instantly recognisable brands. It also holds worldwide copyright for all the famous transport posters, past and future. And how do you feel about 1970’s era District Line upholstery.

Not sure. Should I be feeling something? You’d better believe it. The shop has a very nice and growing sideline in furniture/cushions/purses/bags etcetera in the Tube and bus upholstery that we reminisce about, immediately recognise and respond to.


Mike Walton, head of trading

And love? Well, admittedly it’s a complicated relationship that the commuter has with their mode of transport. And while we’re on the subject it might be the same for the Transport Museum and Transport for London (TFL). Mike Walton, head of trading, who describes himself as ‘creative dictator’ says that new products in the shop are determined not only by what the market is doing but by the key policy initiatives of TFL. If a new bus comes on stream expect the shop to develop products around it.

Well, one just has hasn’t it? Correct, and the resulting model is a current best-seller. Likewise, TFL has made a big deal of the 150-year anniversary of the Tube and the shop’s book of 150 transport posters, chosen from its collection of 5,000, is another very big seller for them.

Hmmm. Not perhaps the usual retail driver. Quite. As Walton points out the Transport Museum shop is the tail end of a political organisation so if the Mayor doesn’t like the cut of your jib then it ain’t appearing on the shelves. Having said that, since it opened in 1980, the shop has always had the capacity to be a bit ‘naughty’ as long as it doesn’t undermine the objectives or image of TFL.

OK, I get all that. Now tell me about who’s buying and what. So, turnover will be around £2.75m this year and Walton wants to up that to £3m next year. 75% of that is conventional shop sales and 25% online but he thinks that will change within a couple of years to more like a 60/40% split. There’s a strong international following for the shop just because so many of the recognised symbols of London and therefore Britain are in the shop – think black cabs and red buses to name two – but the majority of punters are British.

And wear anoraks. Oh get over yourself. The customers in the shop in fact divide into two distinct categories, there is the ‘urban cool’ – youngish, perhaps with family, money to spend and a desire for nicely designed stuff. Then there is the ‘mature explorer’ – the poster enthusiast, the person who will buy the 1980’s bus timetables, but also with no minimum spend. And, let me tell you, they are all loving moquette.


Moquette in all its glory

And what, pray, is moquette? It is the name of the material that you park your bottom on when you sit on a bus, tube or train. The most famous by a long chalk is the District line moquette, in use between 1978-86, and a rug in the same will set you back nearly £300.

Phew. Which pales into significance when you come to the designer moquette chaise longues at £3,600. But again this is the curious retail opportunity you get when you ally a shop with a service organisation. Walton is adamant that customers do ‘expect us to represent the TFL look and the shop is the only reliable outlet for that look’. For example on sale at the moment are vintage luggage racks rescued from decommissioned 1960s Metropolitan line trains – being snapped up for £150 a pop. Genius.

Surely Walton could sell this stuff all over the place – not just out of one small shop? Hold on there, partner. He has a long list of places like the Tate and British Museum which have tried this and found that ‘to freestand outside their institution is a tough call’ but he’s always open to interesting ideas and ‘pop up shops where applicable’ could be a possibility if the right location came up.

Right, how do I get my product into this one small shop then? There are three main ways they source the goods. Firstly there are the off the shelf generic transport themed products, like Thomas the Tank Engine, which just fit in. Secondly there is a big chunk of licensed products which are good news as there is no risk to the shop and thirdly there are the own label, bespoke, you can only buy them on our premises items which have become the USP of the London Transport Museum shop. Anything on sale according to Walton ‘must represent brand TFL or brand London’ and he is very interested in ‘Made in the UK’ again as it rises up the social agenda, all of which brings up seamlessly back to…

Moquette? Right. The design team had been fascinated for some time by the idea of using seating fabric but it is extremely expensive to manufacture so the finances had to be right and it was not until 2006 that the venture started. A big investment in the fabric was made (a minimum run of 500 metres has to be ordered at any one time) and a furniture company based in Nottinghamshire began to manufacture the goods. Cannily the shop can also tag their orders onto a TFL order or use unused cuts from either the Tube or bus operators. As Walton admits ‘the key to the fabric collection is that it is wanted commercially’.

Well, looking forward what can I expect to see in my basket? So, the airport range is going to be widened – this is down to a lot of interest at the moment in Heathrow expansion and Crossrail. And in November a new moquette range in time for the Christmas market – this time it’s 1970 -78, expect it to fly off the shelves.

Umm, would they do me a bespoke pullover? Leave me now.


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