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Demystifying the Digital Shelf

March 2, 2020
Sarah Lewis
Written By
Sarah Lewis

Here at Profitero, we frequently use the term “digital shelf” to describe what we do and why we do it. However, the phrase is much more than a buzzword. The digital shelf is an important concept to understand in the eCommerce world. Brands spend around $500 billion per year for physical retail shelf space when consumers are increasingly choosing to shop online on the digital shelf instead. Moreover, 78% of consumers turn to online shopping channels before even entering a brick-and-mortar store.

A firm grasp of the digital shelf and how to command it could be the difference between a brand that sinks or swims online.


What is the digital shelf?

The digital shelf is how and where a brand’s product is displayed online. The digital shelf can be on a:

  • Retailer’s site
  • Third-party marketplace
  • Mobile app
  • Personal website
  • Any other eCommerce channel.


This is where digital consumers go to browse, discover and purchase products, similar to a physical retail shelf.

For most retailers, the primary digital shelf is the search results page. This is where most consumers look for items to purchase after inputting their direct inquiries into a search bar or filtering product choices based on their individual requirements. Other digital shelves are category pages, curated product lists and new product release email campaigns.

Just as with the physical shelf in a brick-and-mortar store, the digital shelf is where brands can control their items' online appearance and story. But brands must rely almost entirely on product content instead of strategic product placement, aisle endcap groupings or flashy packaging.

Some of the content elements that are required for the digital shelf include:

  • Product variation options
  • Images
  • Videos
  • Descriptions
  • Instructions
  • Pricing
  • Ratings and reviews


Combined, these elements are displayed on retailer websites to help consumers make informed purchasing decisions online.

Physical shelf versus digital shelf

What is digital shelf content?

Think of digital shelf content as the collection of online experiences that consumers use to purchase products. These might include resources to find, research, and compare products. Since the digital shelf is where products are displayed online, think of the content as what guides shoppers and helps them understand the product once they find it.

Some examples of digital shelf content are: 

  • PPC (pay-per-click) ads
  • Search results
  • Social media posts
  • Product descriptions and photos

It can be difficult to know precisely how shoppers will move through their shopping experience, which is why quality content at every stage of the journey is important.

What is digital shelf space?

Digital shelf space is the space products occupy on the internet. It’s the online equivalent of a traditional brick & mortar shelves and aisles. 

Products might be displayed on:

  • An eCommerce store
  • A retailer’s site
  • A third-party seller’s site

Maximizing the space products occupy in the digital marketplace can make all the difference in bottom-line sales.

What is digital shelf data?

Collecting digital shelf data is essential to running a successful eCommerce business. Since this is such a broad topic, digital shelf analytics include the entire online shopping experience—especially performance metrics about your product pages.

Tracking important analytics and metrics is vital in any business, particularly online businesses. The digital shelf space requires specialized knowledge, tools, and resources to track numbers properly.

Later in this article, we’ll cover digital shelf analytics, data, and resources for getting started.

What is a digital shelf in eCommerce?

The eCommerce world is an ocean of brands and products to sort through. While shoppers browse the metaphorical aisles of their Google search results and social media ads, they may stumble across your brand’s eCommerce site. It rests on a shelf all its own.

Understanding where products are on the internet—and how you maximize that space—can drastically increase your brand’s visibility.

Why is the digital shelf so important?

The digital shelf is important for brands to grasp as it can directly impact sales, profitability and brand reputation. For example: 

Additionally, more consumers are turning to the digital shelf to conduct research before making a purchase in-store.

  • Digital retail channels and product content influence more than half of all retail sales.
  • 82% of Walmart customers reference Walmart’s website or mobile app while shopping in store -- showing the importance the digital shelf has on physical store sales (Source: Walmart Connect)

Strengthening your online performance can have a direct impact on a shopper’s overall retail experience.

Your Digital Shelf Strategy: A Cheat Sheet to Accelerating eCommerce Growth

Understanding the digital shelf can make or break a brand’s ability to succeed online. Developing a robust digital shelf strategy can lead to optimized product content, improved search placement, increased product page traffic and higher conversion (i.e., sales).

At a company level, the digital shelf impacts an entire brand’s ecosystem, including:

  • eCommerce
  • Revenue/finance
  • Consumer relations
  • Account managers to marketing
  • Research and development
  • Supply chain
  • Merchandising experts.

Developing a cohesive strategy ensures that all moving pieces work successfully together.

Components of a Digital Shelf Strategy

1. Digital shelf planning: The first step in building a digital shelf strategy is setting organizational goals. Goals can either be hard (i.e., based on sales, profitability or market share growth) or soft (i.e., based on brand reputation, customer satisfaction or brand awareness).

For example, brands that prioritize sales as a goal may be highly focused on optimizing the digital shelf for one or two retailers most important to their business, and may aim to improve every lever available to them (search, content, availability, etc).

On the other hand, brands may be concerned about brand reputation. They may focus primarily on creating product content with broad-reaching impacts across their entire retailer network and heavily influencing the shopper experience in-store.

2. Digital shelf prioritization: Once you set goals to identify the focus of your digital shelf strategy, it is important to prioritize the retailers, brands, and products to which you'll dedicate resources. This helps narrow down an extensive portfolio to concentrate on high performers, such as bestsellers, fast growers, or new releases. In addition, you should prioritize which competitor products will be helpful to track and benchmark against.

3. Digital shelf personnel: Personnel assignment involves determining what roles and how many employees are necessary to execute your strategy. Generally, this includes an overall owner of the digital shelf strategy that ensures goals are being met and reports progress to senior management. Other digital shelf roles can include product content copywriters, search specialists, strategy and insights analysts, and supply chain experts. If adding resources is not possible, brands can look into outsourcing tasks to eCommerce agencies that help with digital shelf optimization.

Digital shelf personnel game plan

4. Digital shelf monitoring: After setting priorities and allocating resources, a plan needs to be set to measure and monitor progress against goals. This involves developing a core set of KPIs to determine digital shelf wins and loss rates. KPIs should directly correlate to specific areas of the strategy, be monitored on a regular monthly or quarterly cadence, and highlight areas of success or improvement. The top KPIs we recommend tracking include:

Focus area


Recommended goal


Amount of content per product

No empty content fields, and content (e.g., number of images, videos, etc.) that is comparable to competitor products


Number of compliant content fields

All fields compliant

Search placement

Number of products appearing on page 1 of search results for a keyword

Goals for search placement should be based on understanding your current share of search and continuously improving

Search placement

Average numerical ranking of products in a category

Goals for search placement should be based on understanding your current average search ranking and continuously improving


MAP compliance rate

No MAP violations


Percentage of in-stock products versus listed products

All listed products should be in-stock or removed from view until back in stock


Number of products with a specified review count

Appropriate amount of total reviews should be determined by benchmarking against competitor products


Number of products with a positive, typically above 4 stars, rating

All products with a positive (ideally 4+) star rating


5. Digital shelf toolkit: Similar to other business processes, tools can help teams do their jobs faster and more efficiently. A few tool categories brands should consider using with their digital shelf strategy include:

  1. Measurement and analytics – Analytics tools are all about collecting as much information about the digital shelf as possible. To break it down further, there are three equally important types of analytics.
      1. Descriptive – Displays actual data about what has happened, such as the amount of sales, published product content, inventory levels and consumer reviews.
      2. Predictive – Uses a combination of trending data, past activity and insights to determine what might happen in the future, such as predicting changes in consumer behavior and forecasting sales.
      3. Prescriptive – Defines how a brand can move forward by suggesting the next action items, such as when to replenish stock or run a marketing campaign.
  2. Content management services – Content management services streamline and standardize product content across an entire portfolio. These tools can benchmark characteristics of good content, store and centrally manage all product content, syndicate to retailer websites, monitor content performance and audit for compliance.
  3. Review syndication services – Review syndication services put all consumer-generated content, like ratings and reviews, together on one platform to simplify management. These tools can set goals on ratings and reviews KPIs, facilitate review-generating campaigns, syndicate reviews across retail  channels, alert of negative sentiments and analyze results.
  4. Paid search and media – Paid search tools allow brands to optimize their products’ search placements  to gain more consumer traffic. These tools can identify popular keywords, provide the option to sponsor keyword advertisements, maximize return on ad spend and measure placement results on sales.
  5. Distributed commerce – Distributed commerce tools help bring products to all consumers across all channels. These tools identify relevant digital touchpoints and how brands can engage each individual target audience.

6. Digital shelf optimization: After the proper processes and tools are in place, optimization of the digital shelf comes in to continuously improve. Brands must use their gathered insights to revise, update and hone in their strategy. One way to accomplish this is to benchmark product KPIs against competitor brands to ensure performance is up to par.

7. Digital shelf executive commitment: The last, but perhaps most critical, requirement is receiving executive commitment, support and funding for the digital shelf strategy. Budget will be needed for internal headcount, agency outsourcing, software tools and services, or optimization efforts, such as paid advertising campaigns and promotions.

You can gain support of the executive team by:

  • Proving the ROI of a digital shelf strategy.
  • Sharing information from industry experts.
  • Creating a scorecard of how to measure performance against goals over time.

Providing third-party research firm case studies that demonstrate eCommerce's importance.

How to Analyze the Digital Shelf

Analyzing metrics is an ongoing process in digital shelf management. The key to gaining valuable insights is focusing on product page performance metrics. These analytics help you see how you compare to your competitors. You’ll also discover how well your digital assets are serving your brand. 

Each eCommerce site carries its own set of rules. There are specific ways to categorize your products, how your buyers navigate the site, how your search engine works, and more. Using digital shelf metrics can tell you what’s happening on your site. That’s something sales numbers simply don’t show. 

Why You Should Regularly Analyze Your Digital Shelf Metrics

Here are a few benefits of analyzing your digital shelf:

  • Improve conversion rates: It’s important to monitor how changes to a product page (copy, images, etc.) impact your conversion rates.
  • Increase brand visibility: Improving your product pages makes your products easier to discover and understand.
  • Strengthen integrity: If inconsistencies exist throughout your product pages, it can decrease your site’s overall integrity (and efficacy). 

By tracking a few vital metrics and analyzing your digital shelf management, you can seize opportunities on which your competitors are missing out. 

3 Steps to Analyze the Digital Shelf

There are three core steps you can take to start analyzing your digital shelf now:

  1. Automate your data collection process: Collecting real-time data is essential to analyzing the digital shelf. If a competitor is out of stock, it’s time to quickly swoop in with your own deals and potentially gain new customers. It’s nearly impossible to do this without software automatically collecting data.
  2. Optimize your brand’s digital touchpoints: The point of understanding your brand’s spot on the digital shelf is to optimize that space. How is your blog content? Your product pages? Your social media profiles? Each digital touchpoint matters.
  3. Create your digital shelf strategy: This is an ongoing strategic endeavor. You’ll want to create an overarching digital shelf strategy to maintain your position and continue to improve it.

How Customers Buy Your Products Online

These days, everyone is online all the time. We’re seeing PPC ads all over the internet, receiving tailored ads on our social media feeds, and finding emails in our inbox every morning from our favorite brands. Our purchases are more digitally influenced than ever before.

Consumers might find products through a Google search, word of mouth, or social media. Here are a few ways to attract shoppers to your digital shelf and cultivate product pages that keep them captivated:

  • Promotions: Running productive promotions can be an excellent way to bring more shoppers to your digital shelf. Regularly rolling out enticing promotions can put your brand in a great position to gain new customers.
  • Email marketing: Presenting your products to your customers directly in their inbox sounds like a good idea. In reality, you have to provide especially valuable resources. Those may be promotions, blog posts, videos, etc.
  • Social media engagement: Being active on social media is an excellent way to connect with your customers. It makes brands far more accessible and recognizable. 

Challenges of the digital shelf

While perfecting the digital shelf is important, be aware that you will encounter some difficulties:

  • Digital shelves are not standardized across retailers. Product detail page setup and requirements require need some customization with each retailer brand partner. Customization can be a significant undertaking for smaller brands with limited resources.
  • Consumers are not able to physically interact with the product. All necessary information to make a purchase decision must include: instructions, ease of use, benefits, ingredients, nutritional facts, reviews and FAQs.
  • Requirements are rapidly evolving. Winning requires continuous effort to keep up with new retail channels, consumer behaviors and search algorithm changes.
  • Assortment can be harder to manage online than offline. In-stock and sell-through rates can be challenging to manage when selling online, as products are available across multiple retailers with various fulfillment models. It is important to set and sync up these processes early on.
  • Digital shelves are dynamic and constantly changing. Within 24 hours, search placements can update hundreds of times. This makes it more difficult to manage and keep up with the trends that are necessary to win.

How brands win on the digital shelf

Now let's cut to the heart: how can your brand capitalize on all the digital shelf has to offer? While strategies vary among industries and retailers, brands can generally follow these steps to improve performance.

  1. Secure the perfect placement: Similar to being at the eye-level of a physical retail shelf, you should emphasize where your products appear on search results pages.
    Items that receive the most attention online are typically near the top of page one in search results. Brands can accomplish this placement by purchasing headline banner advertisements, sponsoring top-ranking spots or boosting organic search. Organic search improves when incorporating relevant keywords in the product description and including all of the necessary content components.
  2. Make your products stand out with product content: On the digital shelf, content is like packaging, so it needs to be attention-grabbing. A few techniques you can use to accomplish this include:
    • Ensuring product titles have appropriate keywords, descriptions, and length.
    • Having a competitive number of high-quality images by benchmarking against other brands.
    • Personalizing product description copy and images to cater to your target audience.
    • Making use of all the product content sections each retailer allows, like bullet points, videos, Q&As, etc.
    • Unifying and representing the brand voice across all owned products.
    • Optimizing content for all channels, device types and screen resolutions.
    • Using a content management system to organize and streamline content and SEO processes.
  3. Always be in stock: There's no point in investing in solid product content and high search placement if a consumer finds your product is unavailable for purchase. You should install a system to alert you of low in-stock rates for all your online retailers, so that you can restock ahead of the game and not miss out on sales.
  4. Strengthen your product reviews: A high count of positive reviews can convince consumers to purchase one product over another. You may want to consider incentivizing your customers to leave a review after a recent purchase, or set up a reminder system that prompts customers to leave a review after they receive the item.
  5. Focus on your most important products first: This can be done by identifying items with the highest margins, growth rates, search volumes, ratings or profits. Then, make this content the strongest and consider sponsoring the most relevant keywords for these products.
    Once your top products dominate the digital shelf, you can move on to the rest of your portfolio, but you do not want to start by spreading your efforts too thin.
  6. Don’t be afraid to invest in help: From content syndication to advertisement campaign management to prescriptive analytics, there is a wide array of third-party software and tools you can purchase to improve your digital shelf strategy. It may take a dedicated eCommerce team or many resources to properly command the digital shelf across all retailers. Although you may not have access to all of these, there are plenty of external partners ready to help bridge the gaps.
  7. Use online promotions wisely: When approached strategically, online promotions can be a valuable tool. Dollar or quantity threshold deals are great ways to maximize the traffic your promotions drive to your site. Thoughtfully encouraging shoppers with valuable deals can entice customers and protect your profitability.
  8. Measure the right KPIs: Successful eCommerce brands live and breathe by the data they collect. Measuring the proper KPIs can mean all the difference between you and your competitors; it allows you to optimize your digital shelf. Start with click-through and conversion rates, then branch out to other relevant performance metrics.

Strengthen Your Brand’s Digital Shelf Presence with Profitero

Do you want to cut through the noise and confusion of digital shelf analytics? There are many things to consider when tracking your metrics, especially when trying to automate the process. Contact Profitero to discover how to streamline an actionable strategy.

Measuring digital shelf KPIs and performance can feel like sailing in uncharted waters. Luckily, there’s no reason to do so without a map. Download our guide to measuring digital shelf KPIs and performance today and simplify the early stages of the process.

Schedule a demo to learn how Profitero can help your brand strengthen its digital shelf presence.

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