How to Optimize Product Placement on the Digital Shelf

By Jennifer Silverberg


In the brick-and-mortar world, retail shelf positioning has long been near the top of CPG manufacturers’ minds. That’s why they spend $500 billion each year to improve it. Every major CPG brand has executives and field teams that work to ensure the best possible placement on critical retail shelves. Brands want to realize the full value of the time and money spent on the design, artwork, and messaging on their product’s packaging.

In stores, we know that items placed at eye level in high traffic areas enjoy higher turnover than those on bottom shelves or tucked in the back of stores. In general, more facings lead to more awareness, which results in more sales. 

The same concept applies directly to placement on websites, or “digital shelves.” Products that pop up immediately when a page loads sell better than competing merchandise that users have to scroll down to see – or even worse – click to page two of results.

With the share of grocery sales that occur online jumping from three percent last year to an anticipated 30 percent by 2019, can you afford to leave digital shelf placement to chance? Just like the armies of field reps that visit retailers to optimize placement on store shelves, ensuring the best digital shelf placement requires continuous and proactive monitoring.

Understanding the Digital Shelf
Digital shelves are not completely analogous to physical shelves for many reasons, but perhaps most important is that they are virtually endless. While physical shelves are limited to retail aisles, a product’s digital shelf includes placement on e-commerce retail sites and every other location where consumers can click a buy button to purchase the product. Smart manufacturers now link digital advertising directly to retailer shopping carts, meaning that every banner ad, paid search result, and social media share is part of an SKU’s digital shelf.

Offline, brands work hard to ensure that products are displayed properly on in-store shelves; that is, the front of the product faces front, similar products are placed next to one another, etc. The same should be true of the digital shelf. Since each digital channel processes content in a different way, it’s easy for artwork to get squeezed out of proportion, text to get cut off, or for things to appear jumbled. This can erode branding because consistency is an important part of maintaining an effective digital shelf.

Right Kinds of Virtual Content
Physical products on store shelves are packaged to tell the product story via copy, imagery, and overall product look/feel, as well as information like nutritional content. Everything from weight to the feel of the package matters. You’ve probably modeled how the package stands out on the shelf vs. its competition. 

How does this best translate in the virtual world? Much of the same content that you might find on packaging might be found there, but better crafted content will likely be required to make up for the inability to touch, shake, smell or otherwise interact with the product before making a purchase decision. Consider what’s missing when that is lost; it’s not made up for by letting someone “zoom” in on your package! 

Smart brands take what they know about consumer interaction with products in their category and are creative about how to substitute the offline experience with product content. Imagery, text, videos, inspirational content and reviews can be helpful. Just as much attention should be paid to all collateral that makes up a digital shelf as that which is included on physical shelves. CPG brands that are serious about building sales can take active roles in ensuring that all channels place that content properly.

Monitor, Monitor, and Monitor Again
After you get your virtual shelf beautifully outfitted, it’s equally important to make sure that the content stays correct and consistent. Watch out for things like incorrect pricing, out-of-date images, mistakes in product descriptions, mis-categorizations, keyword loss, and other changes that can kill conversion. Keep an eye out for competitors and watch for ways they may try to reposition your brand vis-a-vis pricing, placement, and packaging. Properly managing digital shelves requires consistent monitoring of every location on the Internet where each product is available, using a service made for this purpose or an audit team. 

Keep the Shelf Working for You
In the end, the same guiding principle of shelf management applies to both online and offline retailers: Brands care which product sells, while retailers just care that a product sells.  Therefore, it is the job of the brand to ensure that it is their product that winds up in the cart. Manufacturers that relinquish digital shelf management to e-commerce retailers and channel partners lose control of messaging and the buying experience. Manufacturers that own the shelf can wind up owning the category.


Jennifer Silverberg is the CEO of Smart Commerce, which helps leading CPG brands like P&G, Unilever and Nestle with their customers’ online buying experiences.




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                                                                        Mid-December 2016