What is the Digital Shelf?

Table of Contents

Written by:
Theresa Quick

Theresa Quick

Chief Operations Officer at Upshelf

Meritxell Turó Silanes

Meritxell Turó Silanes

Marketing Manager at Upshelf

Brand and sales managers used to working in a brick-and-mortar retail environment will be familiar with a core list of traditional purchase drivers, commonly referred to as the 4Ps: product, price, place and promotion.

With ecommerce on the rise, many sales professionals may be wondering how those drivers translate to the ‘digital shelf’. Ecommerce focused brand and sales managers focus on similar aspects, but through an online lens, namely visibility (on-page and search), relative price, stock availability, and content (product pages and images).

Unlike traditional brick-and-mortar, ecommerce comes with a greater risk of sales volatility because the environment changes more frequently and significantly. In just minutes, a brand can move from ‘Top Shelf’ visibility (page 1 on a search results page) to being virtually invisible (page 2 and beyond). And since 75% of consumers never even visit the second page of search results, that can mean millions in lost revenue. Because consumers can easily compare prices and receive product recommendations instantly, there’s also an increased risk of product substitution. 

While sales data can provide the what, it doesn’t always explain the why. In this article, we unpack the concept of the digital shelf and break down how an effective strategy will help give you a competitive advantage.

Defining the digital shelf

Think of the digital shelf as any touchpoint a consumer has with your brand when researching and making their purchase. From research and comparison, to social channels and your product page, it’s necessary to optimize your performance and sales in order to beat your competitors.

Digital Shelf

More than two decades ago, the concepts of a “perfect” or “golden” store”, or “flawless execution” were popularized by global leading brands like Unilever, P&G, and PepsiCo, referring to the set of KPIs to be achieved in retail brick and mortar stores.

This concept, which referred to the ideal product situation to provide the best shopping experience, required extensive knowledge of the brand's current situation, analysis of its four Ps (product, price, place, and promotion), as well as knowledge of the processes and influences on consumer behavior.

Why your brand should care about the digital shelf

As the world recovers from the global pandemic, it’s become apparent that COVID has accelerated the adoption of ecommerce and changed perceptions about online shopping. Given the widespread adoption of this new channel, even consumers who prefer traditional retail experiences will still be impacted by digital touchpoints on their buying journey. 

Improving performance, maintaining reputation, and increasing sales are all linked to the online channel, and when your brand succeeds, your entire ecosystem will be strengthened, creating synergies between digital and offline sales. 

Benefits of mastering the digital shelf:

1. Stay competitive and relevant in the marketplace

Ecommerce revenue is a fundamental building block for CPG growth. The Canadian ecommerce market contributed to the worldwide growth rate of 26%, increasing 18% in 2020 (Statista).

According to an analysis by the Boston Consulting Group, the rapid shift to ecommerce will drive more than 70% of sales growth across food and beverage categories through 2022. In the grocery sector, 34% of consumers have increased the frequency of their online grocery shopping as a result of the pandemic. With 3.4 billion ecommerce users worldwide, the growing number of online shoppers presents an opportunity for forward-thinking brands to improve their market share and increase overall sales.

2. Leverage digital touchpoints to drive offline sales

Customers expect both online and in-store experiences from brands, making it critical to ensure pricing, content, and assortment are consistent across channels. 

According to a study conducted by the Retail Council of Canada and Google Canada, 61% of customers did at least one online activity before making an in-store purchase and, conversely, 65% performed at least one offline activity, like going in-store to browse, before buying online.

This suggests that investing time, money, and energy to boost online brand awareness can drive sales at physical stores. Take advantage of the impact and resonance that online publications have to promote your brand on ecommerce, making it easily recognizable even offline. By making ecommerce an extension of your physical store, you’re building trust and loyalty by engaging shoppers everywhere at different points along their journey.

3. Identify opportunities to expand your market

The digital shelf provides a wider range of distribution opportunities and brand awareness than brick and mortar locations. As plug-and-play ecommerce platforms and the last mile delivery services like Cornershop and Instacart continue to expand, brands can identify and leverage new trade partnerships. 

So, where to start? To decide how to expand your market, reach new consumers, and build loyalty, identify the most relevant online retailers in your category. Who are the most strategic ecommerce partners that can give you better results? Who can you build a long-term and winning partnership with? In addition to the giant ecommerce players, are there vertical or specialized sites in your category where you can explore a commercial agreement?

The other interesting clue to successfully expanding your market is to look at your competitors. Where are their products being sold? Do you have a presence there? Have you been experiencing stock issues at that retailer? In the same vein, it’s also a good idea to confirm that any brick-and-mortar retailers that carry your products sell them via their online stores too.

 4. Gain valuable market intelligence and learn from your competitors 

To be successful in the rapidly changing e-commerce environment, brands need to constantly adjust and tweak online strategies in order to stay ahead of competitors.

By continuously tracking your closest competitors you can make more informed and strategic decisions when it comes to assortment, pricing schedules, content, keywords, and sponsored search. You can also see where competitors are sold to identify untapped sales channels and online opportunities.  

Take competitive insights further by overlaying internal sales data with price/unit promotions to measure the impact of these activities on the bottom line. When you’re inspired by successful techniques, methods and ecommerce actions, enrich your own strategies to capitalize on successful ideas.

4 key factors for winning on the digital shelf

Now that you realize the impact and importance of the digital shelf for your brand, what factors should your brand focus on to win?

1. Availability

No amount of investment in marketing or content matters if your product isn’t in-stock. If your product is out-of-stock (OOS), not only will you lose the sale, but 1 in every 4 customers will switch and try a competitor. 

In addition, low availability/distribution costs your brand in other ways aside from sales revenue. Out-of-stocks can result in a frustrating brand experience, damaging brand loyalty and customer trust; beyond that, if your customer is then offered a similar product by a competitor, you could lose a loyal customer.

The key to avoiding these costs is to detect stock-outs in real time and to ensure that the information reaches the responsible person quickly. Look at OOS and bilateral partnerships to anticipate and prevent out-of-stocks, lowering their impact.

Out-of-stock partnerships consist of manufacturers and retailers disclosing their respective stocks of products. If the product is OOS in the retailer, the customer can still complete the purchase because the manufacturer can send the article directly. In the bilateral partnership, manufacturers and retailers reciprocally make their inventory transparent. When a customer purchases a product, it’s sent from the best possible distribution point.

2. Price

As one of the 4 ps of marketing, price also contributes to the value and the perception that consumers have of the brand, and should be consistent with the quality of an item.

90% of consumers compare prices before buying and price is the key purchase decision factor for 80% of consumers, making it one of, if not the most crucial data points. Tracking price trends and promotions gives you visibility into who respects your manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP). This is important in order to improve agreements with each retailer and avoid complaining and the downward spiral of margin loss and loss of perceived product value.

3. Content

Without being able to touch, smell, or feel your product, content is critical when shopping online. It plays an essential role in search engines, so the better it is, the easier it will be for a customer to find your product.

Once the customer is on your product page, images, titles, and description should help them in the purchasing process, solving doubts, generating trust, and convincing them to add to cart. 90% of consumers read the product details, giving you a great opportunity to convey why they should purchase your brand.

Effective content helps consumers understand the benefits and/or ingredients of your product, and clarify questions that may arise during the purchase process. Images and mixed media also play a key role in telling the brand story and making the product more appealing. Unboxing videos where consumers unpack and use a product and give first impressions are incredibly popular on YouTube. 

The more you can help the shopper to get a realistic understanding of the product, the better. If the information is poor, unreliable, or confusing, your customer may leave your page, or buy a competing product.

4. Visibility

It’s simple: if a customer can’t find it, they won’t buy your product. Being on the top of the first page is critical to improve brand visibility, reputation, and moreover, conversion and sales.

In the world of online shopping, the search bar is how customers communicate their needs. Understanding and identifying the right keywords is paramount to effectively investing marketing spend, but also improving organic search results through content and product descriptions. 

Where you sit on the digital shelf is just as crucial for sales as eye-level shelf positions are in a brick-and-mortar store. Some sources have suggested moving your products to page 1 from page 2 can lift your sales up to 30%.

Every retailer has their own unique algorithm for determining page rank. Common factors include elements like hero images, mixed media, keyword density, popularity, ratings and reviews, third-party endorsements, and lastly, paid search.

To effectively allocate resources, first identify your most important online retailers and top SKUs, then benchmark your organic search results and start working to get your product to the top of the ecommerce page.

4 key factors to win the digital shelf

Key Factor
Why Is It Important?
Consequence For Brands
What Brands Can Do
Key Factor
Why Is It Important?
Consequence For Brands
What Brands Can Do
Availability
  • Brands lose $17 billion globally/year due to online OOS
  • 26% shoppers switch brands, when the product is unavailable
  • Loss of Sales
  • Impact on Customer Loyalty
  • Damage to search performance and page visibility
  • Strain on trade partners and brand reputation
  • Detect OOS
  • Detect risk of substitution
  • Develop OOS partnerships
  • Develop bilateral agreements
Key Factor
Why Is It Important?
Consequence For Brands
What Brands Can Do
Price
  • Price is nº1 factor for +60% of online shoppers
  • 90% of consumers compare prices online
  • Decreases the value perception of the product/brand
  • Decreases profit margins
  • Generates conflicts with loyal retailers
  • Dilutes perception of brand value
  • Can impact consumer trust
  • Track promotions
  • Identify trends
  • Detect the first mover
  • Provide incentives to retailers
  • Content agreements with retailers
Key Factor
Why Is It Important?
Consequence For Brands
What Brands Can Do
Visibility
  • Decreases the value perception of the product/brand
  • Decreases profit margins
  • Generates conflicts with loyal retailers
  • Dilutes perception of brand value
  • Can impact consumer trust
  • Decrease conversions rates
  • Dilutes perception of brand value
  • Damage to search performance and page visibility
  • Provide each retailer all specific content needed
  • Optimize descriptions and titles with keywords
  • Optimize images in terms of compression, quality and quantity
Key Factor
Why Is It Important?
Consequence For Brands
What Brands Can Do
Content
  • 86% of sales from page 1, 65% sales off top shelf
  • Loss of Sales
  • Impact on Customer Loyalty
  • Reassess your advertising
  • Ensure you are in stock
  • Help to optimize content on product page
  • Incentivize ratings and reviews


The power of data in the digital shelf

In the ecommerce game, every brand is fighting for the attention of the consumer. Online prices can change quickly in a short period of time, negative reviews can trigger a branding crisis, and stock-outs can directly impact lifetime customer loyalty.

The marketplace has changed, and it’s harder than ever before to track the thousands of online channels that are appearing daily. Add in the growth of click and collect, dark stores and last mile delivery, and the ecommerce space can feel overwhelming. (Dark stores are traditional retail stores that have been converted to local fulfillment centers.) It’s a volatile environment that can seem daunting, but we promise: it’s not impossible to navigate. 

At Upshelf, we believe in the power of data to provide tangible and actionable insights to help CPG professionals make strategic decisions and drive online growth. We felt that many online analytics tools were overly complicated and confusing, which is why we set out to create a platform that brings the essential data you need into one dashboard. We’ve seen first-hand how brands that base their decisions on data improve their strategies. 

Here are some of the ways you too can leverage data for your organization:

Improve sales team visibility: Data provides facts and allows all team members to speak the same language. Effective communication improves the work environment, relationships between colleagues, and avoids misunderstandings that can hinder the achievement of objectives. Using common tools allows people to set targets, unify communication, streamline processes and collaboration, and improve the monitoring of objectives.

Quickly spot problems: By using daily digital shelf data in real-time, you can avoid lost revenue or opportunities by acting immediately. Analyzing trends helps anticipate and prevent future issues that may impact your availability or positioning. 

Build and protect brand trust: Consistent pricing and content across multiple online channels is critical to protecting brand equity, since customers can get frustrated when prices vary between online and offline channels. Continuous monitoring can also allow you to catch negative ratings and reviews so your team can address them quickly, or coordinate a solution with your retail partner.

How to use digital shelf analytics to grow your sales

Set objectives and timing

Capitalize on your team's knowledge and draw on data to determine your brand’s strategy. When establishing KPIs for the 4 key factors impacting your performance on the digital shelf, ensure they’re specific, measurable, achievable, and time-based targets. 

Based on our experience accompanying leading CPG brands, this table shows a standard set of objectives, which should be adapted according to the priorities of your organization.

Key Factor
KPI
Recommended Target
Key Factor
KPI
Recommended Target
Availability
In stock: from all the stores that list your product, how many do you have in stock?
Key Factor
KPI
Recommended Target
Availability
Risk of substitution: from all stores where you are OOS, is your competitor in-stock?
Key Factor
KPI
Recommended Target
Price
Is your MSPR respected across retailers?
Key Factor
KPI
Recommended Target
Visibility
Are your products easy to find in the ecommerce?
Key Factor
KPI
Recommended Target
Content
Are the images shown by the retailers compliant with your brand guidelines?
Key Factor
KPI
Recommended Target
Content
Are titles and descriptions complete and compliant with your brand guidelines?


Prioritize actions according to your resources 

Start by gaining a solid understanding of where you stand in the digital marketplace. Focus on the top-selling points of sale and best performing products to yield best ROI, then set goals and targets.

Although each organization is unique in their ecommerce journey, tackling availability and assortment/distribution is key, followed by spotting pricing inconsistencies and violations. 

If you're starting with an established online retailer network, invest in content, search, and brand images to maximize impact and achieve best practices. Then continuously monitor changes in search, competitive landscape, and pricing. 

Manage your sales team’s performance and compensation

Use digital shelf KPIs to monitor and gauge performance of your sales reps and teams. Tangible and reliable data on store metrics and growth can help motivate and shift focus online for sales professionals traditionally managing brick and mortar relationships. Clearly communicated goals and regular reporting on progress can be a powerful tool to calculate bonuses and celebrate achievements.

Find the right tools

How will your teams collect and manage data? Will they have to manually visit retailers' websites? Will they have to use complex tools with thousands of irrelevant data points for their goals? Will they need hours of learning to get up and running? These are common issues with digital shelf analytics tools, and create a significant barrier to adoption and actionability. 

Find a tool that allows your team to quickly initiate change and continuously monitor the marketplace. This way, you’ll get a quick return on investment by increasing performance and productivity.

Collaborate with retailers

Retailers may ask for your advice on how shoppers behave in your category. Be proactive and provide everything they need to maximize sales potential on their website.

You can negotiate with retailers in several ways to get them to accept your terms.

For example, one of Upshelf's clients explained how they were able to ensure correct pricing by investing in marketing actions at key retailers. Another brand shared its OOS and pricing data with key retailers to help them both increase sales. 

If your team has the right data, it will be much easier for them to negotiate better trade partnerships.

How to use Digital Shelf Analytics

Ecommerce is growing at an unprecedented rate and brand’s need to adapt quickly to master this new sales channel. Having the right information about your availability, visibility, content, pricing and ratings is critical to making strategic and timely decisions to win the digital shelf. 

See how we can help you and your team uncover blindspots and accelerate your online growth.

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