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Article 7 min read

Why retailers need a digital shelf strategy and tips on getting it right

By Caroline Lesley Baldwin, Guest contributor

Last updated November 2, 2022

It’s safe to say that online shopping has exploded. In 2021, online sales surpassed 5.2 trillion U.S. dollars worldwide, according to Statista, and this figure is only expected to continue to grow in the coming years. Customers are shopping all the time and from anywhere–even when they are in physical stores, shoppers are using their phones to browse eCommerce sites while wandering the aisles, with Shopify stating 54 per cent are likely to look at a product in-store, but buy it online.

As more and more customers are starting their shopping journey online, how can retailers keep shoppers happy in store and on their smartphones? An effective “digital shelf”’ strategy can create a better omnichannel shopping experience and help retailers manage inventory effectively. Read on for top tips.

What is a digital shelf?

Bricks and mortar retailers know how to create a great in-store shopping experience. The high-street brands spend millions on traditional product merchandising, from creating an eye-catching window display to tempt customers inside, to ensuring products are easy to find and store assistants are on hand to help with any queries.

Customers want this experience replicated online–they want to easily find what they are looking for, receive helpful information and recommendations and be introduced to similar products. Take a look at cosmetics retailer, Lush. Its in-store experience is striking, fun, hands-on and store assistants couldn’t be more helpful. Turn to its website and products are easy-to-find, with popular search terms highlighted right at the top, while third-party product reviews reassure shoppers are making the right decision. Product pages are sat alongside informative blog content in the Lush style customers know and love the brand for. And, with their strong stance on ethical practices and sustainability, their brand tells a powerful story.

So think of the digital shelf as the online equivalent of a shelf in a physical store–it’s where customers go to browse, discover, and purchase products when shopping online via a retailer’s website, mobile app, or third-party reseller’s site.

A retailer’s digital shelf should be where customers are looking for information about a product–both the search results page and product category pages are critical entry points for online shoppers and should provide imagery, video, short description, pricing, availability, variation options, and ratings and reviews for each product. Likewise, the product landing page should also house all this and further information too.

Brands have spent billions over the years trying to get their products in the best position to be seen by shoppers in physical stores. Now with the rise of direct-to-consumer (D2C), brands and retailers have the ability to curate their own shelves how they see fit. This can actually be an overwhelming online process as customers expect to have access to all the key information at their fingertips instantly. Ensuring that information is available to online shoppers while making the website look its best is a difficult job for web designers, technologists, and marketers alike, and must be approached with a joined-up strategy.

Like in a retail store, retailers want their digital shelf fully stocked, looking clean and concise as well as offering the correct amount of branding and information to make your customers feel confident in their purchase. Let’s take a look at that in a little more detail:

  1. How to fully stock a digital shelf

    Product information: Every digital shelf should be able to pull in key product information such as hero imagery and product detail, while ensuring product content is up to date with consistent messaging across the site. Keep an eye on keywords–monitor the search terms your customers are using and tag your product pages accordingly to encourage more shoppers to the right products.
    Ensuring the ecommerce pages are clean and easy to shop is paramount. Make sure each product page has a consistent look and feel–a similar number of images, a product description, specifications, reviews and related product links.
    At this point, retailers can use sales data to identify best-selling products and place them higher up the page, while marketing teams can invest in promotional activities and ad campaigns to bolster sales.

    Live inventory: Once the products are on the virtual shelves, this is when retailers must think about intelligent technologies, such as live availability from the supply chain and in-store. One of the key drivers to developing a digital shelf strategy has been the adoption of click & collect–in the UK the appetite to buy online and pick up in store has soared with click & collect turnover estimated to hit Eu11.9bn by 2023, up from Eu3.2bn a decade earlier. Live inventory is key for click & collect to work at its best. Retailers have to ship orders from warehouses to stores at a cost. That means waiting for the customer, which can be frustrating to everyone involved. But with live inventory, click & collect can be near instantaneous.

    Pricing: Larger retailers have been monitoring their prices for decades. If a channel partner sells their brand at a different price point, they can quickly act accordingly, and this can be immediately reflected online via their digital shelf. But in a market with increasing supply chain pressures and spiralling inflation, a race to the bottom in terms of price is not always the wisest thing to do. Instead, retailers can use a digital shelf to engage with customers around pricing. Be clever with added-value and signal customers to perks such as free delivery or warranty promises to keep them from venturing elsewhere.

  2. How to make sure the digital shelf is looking its best

    Like in a retail store, without due care and attention, a digital shelf can become dusty, marketing material may look a little tired and faded, and there may be merchandising gaps from missing products. A retailer’s shelf needs to be constantly monitored and updated to ensure it is looking its best, is attractive to customers, and is fully stocked.
    Meanwhile, a digital shelf can provide the added bonus of being reactive to sales data and market conditions, such as displaying best-selling products at the top of the webpage, or even personalising pages when a logged-in customer visits the site to offer products to them that are most relevant.

    All of this comes back to ensuring all the technology systems that have been invested in are communicating in harmony. The last thing a retailer needs is fragmented technology systems which lead to a lack of joined-up data, a missing product or a dreaded 404 Page Not Found message.

    Simplicity is key here and choosing the technology partners who you can trust to deliver a clean and concise digital shelf.

  3. Content is king

    Along with the crucial product and shipping information, a digital shelf is also an opportunity to use content to show a brand’s personality. From blogs and social media plug-ins to ratings, reviews, and user-generated content–there is a wealth of content that can compliment your digital shelf offering. Research suggests up to 80 per cent of shoppers are reading reviews of products online while shopping in-store, proving that an engaging digital shelf is integral to a retailer’s store strategy (see our blog on Endless Aisle here). Just make sure search engine optimisation (SEO) is up to scratch and consider working with an SEO agency to create a strategy which will maximise the digital shelf and bring in new customers.

    This is also where retailers should consider amplifying assistance. In a store, there is an expectation that a customer can catch the eye of a retail assistant when they need help. Online, this help needs to be clearly signposted–from FAQ guides and clear guidance on fulfilment policies, to help centres and chatbots–because nothing is worse than having to make customers work hard to answer a simple question. But don’t forget that this is an opportunity for customer support agents to break down the digital barriers and provide a little human touch when necessary, replicating that reassuring conversation shoppers may have with in-store sales assistants can really help tip that shopper from browsing into buying.

Online shopping is a cut-throat business. One hitch in the eCommerce experience is that customers are simply one click away from shopping with a competitor instead. Making sure the eCommerce journey from start to finish is clear, concise, and engaging is critical to avoiding a lost sale in a highly competitive world.

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