E-commerce is growing and brands need to understand how to make their products stand out and be found on an ever-expanding digital shelf
The last year has been challenging. Continuing to operate in the midst of a global pandemic has, for many companies, been an achievement in itself. As governments begin to roll out vaccination programs across the globe, businesses and consumers alike are looking forward to a return to normalcy.
But in commercial terms, ‘normal’ will look very different in the months and years ahead. The pandemic has accelerated the shift away from physical stores to e-commerce not by months, but by as much as five years, according to data from IBM’s US Retail Index1. The challenge for brands in such an environment is not just to build and maintain visibility online but, in order to drive revenues, to get products in front of consumers – to secure prime space on what’s been dubbed the digital shelf.
The idea of the digital shelf can appear counter-intuitive. After all, there are lots of different digital shelves that correspond to different retailers’ websites, marketplaces such as Amazon and eBay, and other e-commerce touchpoints, such as brands’ own sites, search engine results, mobile apps and shoppable content.
What is the digital shelf – and why does it matter?
The terminology, borrowed and adapted from the world of brick-and-mortar retail, is revealing. It 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 and less in physical stores, 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 e-commerce market set to be worth an estimated $6.4 trillion by 20242.
How do brands best showcase their products on the digital shelf?
Today brands are moving beyond their own stores, beyond their own 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 in order to reach new customers. But with these new audiences comes the challenge of ensuring that goods stand out from the crowd in an increasingly competitive environment.
The tools that brands have to 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.
Product information needs to be as rich and detailed as possible, regardless of what market it's being sold in. 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 information are clear – since when it’s not, or when they spot inconsistencies, shoppers soon lose their trust in a brand, wherever they have 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 fees3. There are clear parallels online with paid search. According to Google research4, even sites that rank highly in organic search benefit from running search ads to maintain visibility.
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 live stream – or checking prices on a smartphone in the store and deciding whether to buy online because it’s cheaper or in the store for immediate fulfillment. Shoppers might opt to buy via Amazon because they have a Prime membership that guarantees next-day delivery, or head to eBay to buy secondhand 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.