Reasons why retailers need a digital shelf strategy

It is safe to say that online shopping has seen tremendous growth. According to Statista, online sales surpassed $5.2 trillion worldwide in 2021, and this figure is only expected to continue growing in the coming years. Customers shop anytime, anywhere. They even use their phones to browse e-commerce sites while walking the aisles in physical shops. According to Shopify, 54 per cent view a product in-store but buy it online.

How can retailers keep shoppers happy in-store and on their smartphones as more and more customers begin their shopping journey online? An effective “digital shelf” strategy can ensure a better omnichannel shopping experience and help retailers manage their inventory effectively. Read on for top tips.

What is a digital shelf?
Physical retailers know how to provide an excellent in-store shopping experience. Big brands spend millions on traditional product merchandising, from an eye-catching window display to lure customers in, to products that are easy to find and shop staff ready to help with queries.

Customers want this experience online too. They want to easily find what they are looking for, receive useful information and recommendations, and learn about similar products. Just look at cosmetics shop Lush. Their shops are eye-catching, fun, practical and the shop assistants are extremely helpful. When you go to the website, the products are easy to find, with popular search terms highlighted at the top, and third-party product reviews ensure you make the right decision. The product pages sit alongside informative blog content in Lush’s recognisable style. And with their strong stance on ethical practices and sustainability, the brand tells a powerful story.

The digital shelf is thus the online equivalent of a shelf in a physical shop, the place where customers go to view, discover and buy products when they shop online via a retailer’s website, a mobile app or a reseller’s website.

A retailer’s digital shelf should be the place where customers look for information about a product. Both the search results page and product category pages are critical starting points for online shoppers and should offer images, video, a short description, prices, availability, variety options and ratings and reviews for each product. Similarly, the product landing page should include all this and further information.

Brands have spent billions over the years to get their products in the best position to be seen by shoppers in physical shops. With the rise of direct-to-consumer (D2C), brands and retailers now have the ability to curate their own shelves to their liking. Indeed, this can be an overwhelming online process, as customers expect to have immediate access to all important information. Making information available to online buyers while ensuring that the website looks its best is a difficult task for web designers, technologists and marketers alike, and needs to be approached with a joint strategy.

Just like in a shop, retailers want their digital shelves to be fully stocked, look clean and uncluttered, and provide the right amount of branding and information so that customers feel confident about their purchase. Let’s take a closer look at that:

How to fully fill a digital shelf
Product information: Every digital shelf should be able to retrieve key product information, such as images and product details. At the same time, product content should be up-to-date, with consistent messaging across the website. Keep an eye on keywords: check the search terms your customers use and label your product pages accordingly to direct more buyers to the right products.
It is of utmost importance that e-commerce pages look sleek and have an easy buying process. Make sure each product page has a consistent look: a similar number of images, a product description, specifications, reviews and related product links.
At this point, retailers can use sales data to identify the best-selling products and place them higher on the page, while marketing teams can invest in promotional activities and advertising campaigns to boost sales.

Live inventory: Once products are on the virtual shelves, this is the time when retailers should consider intelligent technologies, such as up-to-date availability from the supply chain and in-store. One of the key drivers for developing a digital shelf strategy is the introduction of click & collect. In the UK, the willingness to buy online and collect in store has increased dramatically. Sales from click & collect are estimated to reach €11.9 billion by 2023, compared to €3.2 billion a decade earlier. Live inventory is essential for click & collect to work optimally. Retailers have to ship orders from warehouses to shops at a cost. That means customers have to wait, which can be frustrating for all involved. But with live inventory, click & collect can take place almost immediately.

Pricing: Larger retailers have been controlling their prices for decades. If a channel partner sells its brand at a different price point, this can be acted upon quickly and that can be reflected online immediately via the digital shelf. But in a market with increasing supply chain pressure and rising inflation, a race to the cheapest price is not always the wisest thing to do. Instead, retailers can use a digital shelf to approach customers about prices. Be smart with added value. Give customers extras, such as free delivery or guarantee promises to dissuade them from buying elsewhere.

How to make sure the digital shelf looks its best
Just like in a shop, a digital shelf can become dusty without proper care and attention, marketing materials can start to look a bit outdated and faded, and gaps in merchandising can appear due to missing products. A shop’s shelves need constant monitoring and updating to ensure they look their best, are attractive to customers and are fully stocked.
Moreover, a digital shelf offers the advantage of being responsive to sales data and market conditions, such as displaying the best-selling products at the top of the web page or even personalised pages with the most relevant products for logged-in customers.

The bottom line is that all the technological systems invested in communicate in harmony. The last thing a merchant needs are fragmented technology systems that lead to a lack of coherent data, a missing product or a dreaded message 404 Page Not Found.

Simplicity is key here, as is choosing technology partners you can trust to deliver a sleek and concise digital shelf.

What matters is the content
Beyond crucial product and shipping information, a digital shelf is also an opportunity to use content to showcase 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 complement your digital shelf offering. Research shows that up to 80 per cent of shoppers read online reviews of products while shopping in-store, proving that an attractive digital shelf is an integral part of a merchant’s shopping strategy (also read our blog Endless Aisle). In any case, make sure search engine optimisation (SEO) is up to scratch and consider working with an SEO agency to create a strategy that maximises the digital shelf and brings in new customers.

Here, retailers should also consider strengthening support. In a shop, a customer is expected to be able to get the attention of a shop assistant if he or she needs help. Online, this support should be clearly stated, from FAQ manuals and clear guidelines on fulfilment policies to help centres and chatbots, because nothing is worse than customers having to go to a lot of trouble to get a simple question answered. But don’t forget that this is an opportunity for customer service agents to break down the digital barriers and provide a bit of human contact when needed, by mimicking the reassuring conversation the customer has in-store with a sales associate.

Online shopping is a cut-throat business. The downside of the e-commerce experience is that customers are just one click away from shopping at a competitor’s store. Ensuring that the e-commerce journey is clear, concise and engaging from start to finish is essential to avoid a lost sale in a highly competitive world.

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