What Is the Digital Shelf? | Salsify

It’s one of the most common questions in commerce: What is the digital shelf? To answer this question, think about the last thing you bought — and consider how you made it to the point you decided to purchase.

You may have seen an influencer using the product on social media. You may have come across an ad for the item while scrolling through your news feed. It may have simply popped up at the top of your search results.

Everywhere you met this product online exists on the digital shelf, which is now an essential part of the commerce journey. Learn everything you need to know about the digital shelf, including its benefits and the differences between the digital shelf and ecommerce.

What Is the Digital Shelf?

The digital shelf is everywhere shoppers can discover, research, and buy something online. It’s made up of a collection of “digital touchpoints,” which are all of the places a product exists online. It’s similar to a physical shelf in a store, but on the digital shelf, the shopping aisle is endless and changes continually.

The digital touchpoints that make up the digital shelf include:

  • Retailer sites
  • Direct-to-consumer (D2C) sites
  • Third-party (3P) marketplaces
  • Mobile shopping apps
  • Social media commerce

In the past, when you wanted to buy something, you would visit your local brick-and-mortar store and choose from the limited number of options on the shelf. This shelf space was dominated by a small selection of brands with the scale and distribution advantages to limit competition.

Now, you likely start your buying journey with a search bar. From retailer sites, 3P marketplaces, and D2C sites to review websites highlighting the best products — and even social media influencers promoting their top picks — the simple act of buying something isn’t as straightforward as it used to be.

The digital shelf is infinite, which means competition on the digital shelf is infinite. Those same brands that were able to dominate space on the brick-and-mortar shelves no longer have the same advantages.

Up-and-coming brands have just as much opportunity to succeed as legacy brands on the digital shelf, and central to success is product content. Similar to the physical shelf in a store, how your products are displayed on these sales channels is important to shoppers.

Engaging product pages and consistent product messaging are the root of building trust with shoppers — and 86% of consumers are willing to pay more for a product when it comes from a brand they trust, according to the 2021 Salsify Consumer Research Report.

The Digital Shelf vs. Ecommerce: What’s the Difference?

While the digital shelf and ecommerce may sound like synonyms, there are several important differences between these two concepts.

The difference between the digital shelf and ecommerce is the digital shelf is the place, and ecommerce is the action. The digital shelf is the entire digital ecosystem, and ecommerce is the act of buying and selling on that digital shelf.

No digital shelf, no ecommerce. 

On the other hand, while you never have to set foot in a store to buy something online, you can interact with the digital shelf when you buy something in-store.

For example, if you buy a product on a retailer’s website, you’re buying something online. That’s ecommerce. But you could have browsed, researched, and purchased it from a dozen different digital touchpoints, interacting with many of them on your journey. And you could have even picked up the product in-store. That’s the digital shelf.

Why Do Brands Need the Digital Shelf?

Brands need the digital shelf because today’s and tomorrow’s consumers predominantly shop online. Eighty-six percent of today’s shoppers rely on digital information while shopping, according to the same 2021 Salsify report.

The COVID-19 pandemic gave the world a definitive and permanent push toward buying online. But this merely accelerated an existing shift to digital-centric shopping experiences.

Even in-store purchases are heavily influenced or even determined by your presence on the digital shelf.  If people can’t find your products when they’re searching for products online, then you may have much less chance of closing a sale — even if someone happens to be browsing in a physical store.

The Future of the Digital Shelf

The digital shelf emerged from an evolution in how people find product information and make purchases. Moving forward, shoppers will increasingly discover, research, and buy online.

The future of physical retail is deeply entwined with digital experiences and vice versa. The internet, a host of other supporting technologies like mobile, and shifts in shopper behavior, have transformed the physical shelf and the digital shelf into a single interconnected consumer experience.

Watch our on-demand webinar, “Digital Shelf Refresh With Accenture Interactive,” to learn how to optimize your digital shelf presence to meet modern consumer demands.