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What If There Is No Shelf?

April 5, 2016
Keith Anderson
Written By
Keith Anderson

Retailers and brands have long understood the importance of shelf presence and retail execution. How many first-year employees at Nestlé, Coca-Cola, and P&G have spent endless hours auditing stores for compliance with planograms and display plans? How many category management, space planning, and third-party merchandising professionals are there in your company?

With so much invested in packaging, planogramming, and promotional plans, retail execution matters. It isn’t glamorous, but auditing shelf position, on-shelf availability, and display execution drives performance.

As e-commerce and online grocery grow, more brands are focusing on the “digital shelf,” using metaphors from the familiar physical world. Search rank and a retailer’s site taxonomy impact discoverability akin to layout, adjacencies, and eye-level placement in physical stores. Product content affects conversion like packaging and facings do offline. In-stock availability is still fundamental.

But what if there is no shelf?

What if shoppers push a button to re-order or speak to a virtual assistant? What if automatic replenishment accounts for a meaningful percentage of volume? How will you prioritize where to play? What will you measure? How will you win?


Amazon’s Dash Replenishment Service

The physical shelf isn’t going extinct, nor is the digital shelf. But at one of the frontiers of growth for consumer products, there is no shelf.

And it feels to me like the limitations of the traditional physical retail metaphor are starting to expose themselves.

If you have five minutes, this non-retail video helped me appreciate the trap of over-fitting old paradigms to new technologies. It’s nearly ten years old, but still instructive.

After watching it, I was left with the vague sense that a new professional discipline will manage something very different than “stores,” “categories,” and “shelves” a decade from now.

And that, as web pages and hyperlinks did for information, products need new technical architecture to unlock the potential value of a more dynamic, less rigid and hierarchical system of order.

And I wonder: will a retailer like Amazon build and own that architecture? Google? A startup? A standards body?

For those with even more time on their hands, read a related topic to this piece: The Path to Repurchase: Why Recursive Moments of Truth Matter

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