In A Digital World, Don’t Forget About Your Physical Shelves

  • October 31, 2018 at 12:26 PM EDT
  • By Richie Heron, Toluna
0aaaRichie Heron Toluna
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These days, there is so much emphasis on the online path to purchase that we sometimes forget that 90% of all purchases are still in-store. Clearly, that makes retail a make-it or break-it environment for most brands. And here’s what’s frustrating about that fact: While brand marketers can control packaging and marketing communications around a product, they have limited control over its placement on a shelf. That fact alone can have a huge impact on a brand’s potential for success.

In fact, research shows that, in a retail environment, overall assessment of a brand category (in other words, a brand’s placement on the shelf) is actually the FIRST thing a consumer notices about a product. It’s not until step two — after the shopper has actually found the product on the shelf — that they react to packaging. The implications of that fact are staggering: All the time and resources poured into package design and testing go down the drain if consumers can’t find your product on the shelf!

Real-World Distractions

The importance of shelf placement becomes even clearer when you understand the power of distractions in the retail environment. Think about it: The average consumer is struggling to find a long list of items in a limited time, while thinking about mounting cost and dealing with a child or two along for the ride. Given these distractions, it is critical that a brand be instantly noticeable on the shelf. If five or six brands have more prominent placement, a consumer will never make it to next steps in the path to purchase of a brand, which involve:


  • Deciding if they “like” the brand
  • Determining if they might buy the brand
  • Reacting to price

With each one of these steps the potential for purchase narrows. That makes it that much more important that a shopper’s attention is captured instantly by effective shelf placement. .

“Did you find everything alright today?”

Effective shelf design is also critical on the retailer’s side of the aisle. While as we noted at the outset most purchases are still made in-store, it’s no secret that there is significant and constantly increasing pressure on retail from the great big shopping mall in the cloud. (It’s hard to compete with an online retailer like Amazon that can place ads based on individual preferences in front of a shopper every time they visit the site.) So brick-and-mortar retailers are increasingly aware that they need to ensure shelf designs instantly capture the attention of their distracted shoppers.

In this ultra-competitive retail environment, they can’t afford to have items lingering on the shelf, cutting into already narrow profit margins, or worse yet, shoppers feeling they’ve not gotten what they need in-store, all but pushing them closer to shopping online. I’m sure we’ve all been asked “Did you find everything alright today?” very recently. Ease of finding products is a concern for retailers as well.

Re-Creating The Retail Environment

Like brand marketers, retailers have long sought an effective means of zeroing in on shelf designs that keep products moving off their shelves and currency flying into their cash registers.

In the past, both marketers and retailers have had certain options for shelf testing, including focus groups of consumers gathered to react to placement and virtual reality programs meant to duplicate the shopping experience. Unfortunately, these solutions have proven cost-prohibitive and time-consuming, making them of little value to brand marketers that need immediate and cost-effective answers to questions about shelf placement, and very unlikely to be used for early-stage product development or certain lower-priority products.

All along, busy marketers — and harried retailers — have needed a cost-effective and automated solution they can use from the comfort of their desks to instantly gauge how effective their shelf designs are (or are not). Emerging technologies, like heat maps and eye tracking, empower retailers to run tests to understand how best to position products on a shelf, evaluate shelf design overall and more. And these systems provide needed answers in a fraction of the time and at a fraction of the cost of previous methods. They quickly and cost-effectively arm brand marketers with the comprehensive data they need to work with retailers to optimize shelf placement, while giving retailers the answer to the question, “Did my shopper find everything alright today?”

Now marketers and retailers have instant access to real-time, actionable insights into the effectiveness of shelf placement. And as we noted earlier, that one factor alone can make or break a brand.


Richie Heron is Director, Digital Research Science, Toluna. He has a diverse background, starting life as a statistician in the health care industry, before moving into CPG, specifically NPD and volume forecasting. Now at Toluna, Heron is tasked with helping clients engage with consumers, allowing them to make decisions faster.

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