The coronavirus pandemic continues across the world. For many companies, which have had to adapt business models and improvise just to survive, simply continuing to trade has seemed like an achievement in itself. No wonder so many of us are looking forward to things getting ‘back to normal’ within our professional lives as well as away from work.
But in commercial terms, ‘normal’ when it finally arrives will seem very different. Pre-Covid-19, business was already moving into the digital realm and the pandemic has accelerated this trend. That’s especially true within business-to-consumer retail. In 2020, according to UN trade and development experts UNCTAD, ecommerce made up 19% of retail sales, a “dramatic” increase from 16% in 2019. In Europe, according to the Ecommerce Europe and EuroCommerce 2021 European Ecommerce Report, 71% of the population shopped online in 2020, up from 66% in 2019 and 64% in 2018.
Overall, the pandemic accelerated the development of retail by as much as five years and, for all that many consumers are now happier to shop in person again, there’s no going back. Within such an environment, the challenge for brands is not just to build and maintain visibility online but, to drive revenues, to get products in front of consumers – to secure prime space on what’s been dubbed the digital shelf.
What is the digital shelf – and why does it matter?
The idea of the digital shelf can initially appear counter-intuitive. After all, there are lots of different digital shelves that correspond to different websites, marketplaces such as Amazon and eBay, and other ecommerce touchpoints, such as brands’ own sites, search engine results, mobile apps and shoppable content.
The terminology, borrowed and adapted from the world of bricks-and-mortar retail, is revealing. The term digital shelf expresses the idea that, no matter what kinds of journeys different consumers take as they research and discover products online, whatever virtual aisles they browse and explore, eventually every consumer who makes a purchase will take an item off the digital shelf and checkout.
In a post-pandemic world, where consumers spend more money via digital channels, it will be those businesses that can best persuade consumers to take this final step that will succeed. These businesses will take the biggest share of a retail ecommerce market set to be worth an estimated $5.4 trillion by 2022.
So how do brands best showcase their products on the digital shelf?
Today brands are moving beyond their own stores and websites, to display their products on a digital shelf that crosses continents. Global brands showcase their wares in digital locations from marketplaces to mobile apps run by delivery companies and on websites run by other retailers – and even by other brands. They do so to reach new customers, and to gain insights into new and existing customers. This in turn brings the challenge of ensuring that goods stand out from the crowd in an increasingly competitive environment.
The tools that brands must deploy here include product assortment, availability, imagery and videos, product descriptions – which include instructions and ingredient or component lists. Ratings, reviews, pricing and promotions – all have a part to play.
Getting the balance right between these depends on the product being sold. Video, for example, is especially important within the clothing sector because people want to get a clear idea of what an item will look like when worn – how a dress will flow. Amateur astronomers, on the other hand, will favor details on the technical specs of telescopes over pictures of people peering at the night sky.
But regardless of what market it’s being sold in, product content needs to be as rich and detailed as possible. Within the grocery sector, for instance, most consumers may not need to know exactly what is in the food they are buying, but it is vital for those with allergies or sensitivities. It’s just as important that other types of product content are clear – since when it’s not, or when they spot inconsistencies, shoppers soon lose trust in a brand, wherever they come across its products. Conversely, when shoppers do have trust in a brand, they will go out of their way to find it, wherever it may be located on the digital shelf.
Brands may not always be able to control how product information is presented by third parties – but they can set out that information as clearly as possible at every point within their control, including to their own websites and channels. In doing so, brands ensure that the different channels that lead to the digital shelf are consistently served with enriched data – and lay solid foundations for a digital shelf strategy that works.
How can brands leverage rich product information to create an effective digital shelf strategy?
Despite many brands increasing their focus on creating rich and detailed content, companies cannot simply assume their products will be found. Businesses also need to achieve high placings on rankings and to actively market products. Think of the way, for example, that within physical retail locations, such as supermarkets, many brands pay slotting fees. There are clear parallels online with paid search. According to Google research, even sites that rank highly in organic search benefit from running search ads to maintain visibility.
Nevertheless, the idea of consumers finding their way to products in a natural and organic way is hugely powerful – even if the reality is that planning and marketing finesse lay behind encouraging these customers towards a specific page. Getting consumers to the checkout is complex in today’s online world. That’s in part because of how consumers – which in this context means all of us – search. Shoppers generally don’t go to a brand’s website and helpfully click on product pages because they like that brand.
Rather, they browse digital aisles in different ways. That might mean going to a retailer’s product page straight from a search engine, or it might mean clicking through shoppable content displayed on an influencer’s livestream – or checking prices on a smartphone in a bricks-and-mortar store and deciding whether to buy online because it’s cheaper, or in the store for immediate fulfilment. Shoppers might opt to buy via Amazon because they have a Prime membership that guarantees next-day delivery, or head to eBay to buy second hand or at a discount.
To a greater or lesser extent, the problem for brands in all these scenarios is a potential lack of control in how products are presented. But if all of these different touchpoints that lead to the digital shelf for a product are fed by consistent, high-quality, rich and reliable data, there’s less chance for things to appear inconsistent. And when brands also develop a digital shelf strategy that gets consumers coming to locations where the brand has more influence – whether that’s a homepage, a trusted retail partner or a branded part of a marketplace – they’re more likely to prosper.