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"Ultimately, the digital shelf is literally your media catalog that’s a 24/7 catalog of delivery … so you need to start thinking about this as a holistic element to help your business." — Lizbeth James, eBusiness Director at Nestlé
Algorithms now rule today’s ecommerce experience. This means brand manufacturers must have robust, yet agile processes for optimizing their content, getting products on the digital shelf, and perpetuating market growth.
However, this is much easier said than done. To help guide brands in this evolving ecommerce environment, Lauren Livak, current director of the Digital Shelf Institute and previously the head of Johnson & Johnson’s North American digital shelf strategy, and Lizbeth James, eBusiness Director at Nestlé, provided a step-by-step roadmap for how brands can create a winning digital shelf process.
Their insights, shared during a recent webinar, "Adopt a Process to Support Your Market Growth and Agility," could help every company successfully navigate today’s complex ecosystem of retailer requirements and fragmented digital experiences. If your brand wants to fine-tune its digital shelf strategy, start here.
Here's what you should know as you dive into how to create a digital shelf plan for success.
Before brands can execute a process for the digital shelf, it’s critical to define exactly what this process is.
Livak says a true digital shelf process is an "end-to-end omnichannel process in which a company prepares, approves, and launches a product online to an endpoint — whether that be a retailer or distributor, a digital catalog, a direct-to-consumer (D2C) site."
It’s really about "how you launch your product online and have a fully built out brand experience," she adds.
Process has become critical to winning the digital shelf because of the huge range of retailer requirements. These requirements not only vary by retailer, but they also change throughout the year for specific retailers. Amazon, for example, changed its product content requirements 167 times in 2021 alone, Livak says.
"That means you need to have a process that enables you to update all of those features or titles or added information, so you can accurately depict that information to your retailer and to your endpoint. It's really important to make sure you can adapt to all of those changes," she says.
"Process is not a dirty word. Sometimes when people say the word ‘process’ people either tune out or they curl in a corner and say, ‘Oh, I don't want to worry about process. There's a lot of red tape and a lot of logistics that go with it,’" Livak adds.
"But when you think about the digital shelf, if you do not have a process, you cannot be agile. You cannot change quickly. You can't work cross-functionally with your teams. Process is really the backbone of setting up everything that you need to get all of your content onto all of those digital endpoints." — Lauren Livak, Director of the Digital Shelf Institute
The core elements of the digital shelf process include the following.
The kick-off starts with a key business question for brands: "How do I know if I want to sell a particular product online?"
For most brands, the answer is yes, which then triggers another series of questions about how to realign the company’s product content, systems, and organization to prepare specific products for the digital shelf.
Different teams will be involved at different stages of the digital shelf process. During the kick-off phase, it’ll likely be a brand’s supply chain team or project management team. Sometimes brand marketing teams are even involved.
Next, brands have to fully understand the content behind their product(s) and where it lives.
"Where is your supply chain data? Where is the brand information around it? How does the brand team want to position this product when it's being sold to the consumer? There's all of that data — importing and collecting it that needs to happen," Livak says.
She adds that either project management, supply chain, or master data management teams typically own this part of the digital shelf process.
From here, brands need to create content.
For the digital shelf, this likely includes static images, graphics, and enhanced content like 360-degree image spins, video, and image galleries.
Marketing, sales, and creative teams often lead these efforts, but an external agency or digital center of excellence within an organization also may own this stage of the process.
Once a brand assembles and creates all of its content, it then needs to go through the approval process with the relevant decision-makers within the organization, such as compliance, legal, or regulatory teams. Approval can be a very short or lengthy process, depending on the organization.
"Do you need to approve all of the information through regulatory and legal, or is there a marketer that just approves the brand story, gets it signed off, and then it can be moved to the next step?" Livak says.
Syndication is the next step. At this stage, a brand must focus on getting its content to the correct digital endpoint and ensure this information meets each retailer’s or destination’s unique requirements — whether it’s Amazon, Walmart, or their own D2C channel.
Analysis is the final step. This stage is about measuring all of the work involved in the digital shelf process, analyzing these insights, and then using them to optimize the overall process again and again to drive agility and growth.
That’s the digital shelf process at a high level, but how exactly does a brand implement all of this? Lizbeth James provides an effective framework companies can use.
Understanding the contours of the digital shelf process is one thing — but brands need an effective implementation plan, as well.
During the webinar, James, who has been involved in digital transformation initiatives at Coca-Cola, Dorel Juvenile, and now Nestlé, shared the key lessons she’s learned about operationalizing how products land on the digital shelf. She distilled them into a six-step process framework.
James says this first step is about more than just building buy-in from department leaders.
"Obviously you need to have that alignment, but try to bring in the person who actually is doing the work most of the time. Your junior resources are the ones who are actually doing the work and they’re naturally tech-savvy. They would have tried to find multiple workarounds to make your current process work, and these workarounds can add up into a disaster in the future in terms of budget, optimization, and speed to market," she says. "It's better for you to include the people who actually do the work. That should be your focus group to start having the conversation."
Next, get your key stakeholders into a room to map your process. Brands should bring in the right subject matter experts (SMEs) to identify gaps. These SMEs should really understand the category, business, the overall market, and the key players within it. They should also have the technical knowledge to help a brand develop a tech stack that optimizes its digital shelf process, James says.
Once a team has identified gaps, the organization should create a gap document to assess whether it needs additional resources. It also should estimate the budget requirements to implement its process.
James says this is a critical step in the process because it can help brands identify duplicate processes and better assess the impact of potential changes on their current organizational structure, technology capabilities, and platforms.
The fourth step is to finalize the gap document and crystallize the full end-to-end digital shelf process the team has created. At this stage, all key stakeholders should review the final document and give the final sign-off.
"Try to implement your plan in phases, which will support your budget requirements. Because once you do your phase one, you actually have a business case for your phase two to go back and ask for the dollars required to make the entire process work," James says.
Next, identify which part of the process has the biggest potential for backlogs and bottlenecks. In a big CPG company, this might be thousands of SKUs that make a process change — like adjusting the length of product descriptions — a herculean, time-intensive effort.
If an organization has the budget and can afford it, James suggests, leveraging an external agency to address these types of backlogs so it doesn’t create additional work for team members or slow down the process of launching products on the digital shelf.
The final step for brands is to measure and track progress.
Companies typically track digital shelf metrics like availability, share of search, ratings, and reviews. However, no one really focuses on how to measure the impact of creating an optimized digital shelf process and the efficiency gains a brand will generate as a result, James says.
She says some metrics brands should consider tracking include additional days of selling time, number of days from trigger to syndication, number of days to write and optimize content, and number of days to create images.
Tracking each step of the process from end-to-end will give your team insight into what’s working and what’s not and help you formulate a plan for how to improve, James and Livak both say.
"Documenting this process not only helps you do the actual work, but gives you a full picture of who's doing what, how long it's taking them, and if you need additional resources to speed it up," Livak says.
From algorithms to retailer requirements, things change seemingly every day in ecommerce.
In this dynamic environment, brands not only must operationalize and automate their processes, but significantly increase their agility. As organizations work to create a winning digital shelf process, they must engage the right stakeholders, focus on communication and collaboration to foster effective change management, optimize their technology stack to support their teams, and evolve with their strategy over time.
By taking all these steps, brands can position themselves to win on the digital shelf not just today, but for years to come.
Check out the full episode of Unpacking the Digital Shelf podcast, "Adopt a Process to Support Your Market Growth and Agility," for more digital shelf best practices.