What is the Digital Shelf? (+ Why It Is So Important)

It's easy to imagine a shelf in a traditional brick-and-mortar store. You see them every time we go into most shops. 

The stock sits on shelves, mostly in tidy rows, ready for customers to pick up and take away to a new home. Occasionally, you'll see an oddly misplaced item on a shop shelf, most likely due to carelessness by one of your fellow shoppers. 

You can pick up and handle these products and get a sense of how they feel, what they look like, and how well the product is made. If you want it, you take it to the counter and pay for it. 

To a shopper, this might seem like a mundane process. However, brands are spending anywhere from $350 to $500 on each display in their stores. Why? 

Because they know it will pay off. 

But living in a world where retail eCommerce sales have reached $6.3 trillion, and this segment constitutes 20.1% of all retail sales globally, brands can't simply focus on their physical shelf presence. 

The digital shelf is just as important, if not more for some brands. Let's take a closer look at what a digital shelf is and why it matters.

What is the Digital Shelf? (+ Why It Is So Important):

What Is the Digital Shelf? 

The digital shelf is the collection of digital touchpoints where customers can find, learn about, and buy products.

This includes everything from:

  • Ecommerce marketplaces
  • Brand websites
  • Retailer sites
  • Social media platforms
  • Comparison shopping engines
  • Affiliate websites
  • Mobile apps
  • Online ads

It is the online version of a traditional retail shelf. It's where products are displayed and marketed to potential customers. 

Think of it as a virtual shelf that exists on the internet. Just like with physical shelves, products are organized in a way that creates an opportunity for a sale. 

The digital shelf is a combination of product pages, ads, search results, mobile apps, third-party sites, and social media accounts. 

Let's say you want to buy running shoes. You go to Google and search for ''buy running shoes.'' 

The first search result is from Dick's Sporting Goods. Even without clicking on the link, you can see a number of product images. That's your digital shelf right there. 

The same is true for Nike's search results, too. Both results also show the customer a price range for the products, just as a physical shelf would. 

Now, let's say you click on the link and land on the product category page. You can see more products now with their prices and names. 

If you were to click on a product result, you'd go to the product page. Here, you can see more information about the product, such as size options, color options, customer reviews, and more images. 

Similarly, if you go to Dick's Sporting Goods Instagram page, you'll see pictures of its products. There's also a link in the company's bio that takes you to its website, which is another touchpoint on the digital shelf

According to a recent report by Integral Ad Science, social media is the third most customer-receptive channel in terms of advertising. So, it makes sense to use your social channels as the digital shelf.  

As evident, these are all the places where a customer can see the product, just like they would in a physical store. 

But what sets the digital shelf apart is that it's not just about seeing the product. Customers can also interact with it, whether it's by reading reviews, viewing product demos, zooming in on images, watching videos, or watching user-generated content (UGC)

Why Is the Digital Shelf Important?

Not every business has the luxury of being on a physical shelf in a retail store. The digital shelf allows businesses, big or small, to have a virtual presence and conduct business regardless of how shiny their store is or what posh part of town it is located in. 

Besides, here are some other reasons why the digital shelf is important. 

Revenue Generation

The number of people who shop online has increased consistently in the past few years. In 2020, 2.37 billion people were shopping online, a figure that has increased to 2.71 billion in 2024 and is forecasted to go to 2.77 billion by 2025. 

The total number of retail sales has also increased from 26.4% in 2020 to 22.5% in 2024.

These figures indicate the need for an online shop presence. With more and more people reaching for their laptops and phones to place orders, it's also to be kept in mind that these shoppers aren't merely doing their last-minute or small-item shopping online. 

In fact, the average number of products bought per order has also increased in the past few years. Currently, people buy an average of 5 items per order

Brands without a digital shelf miss out on these orders and, ultimately, the revenue generation from them. As John Hazen, VP of Omnichannel Commerce & Digital Innovation at True Religion, puts it,

"Good merchandising inspires customers to buy if they weren't going to buy." 

The digital shelf can help businesses achieve this. 

Options for Customers 

There was a time when people were limited to a few stores when they wanted to buy something. 

Now, customers have much more sway than they did in the pre-digital age. Whole industries have disappeared or have had to reimagine themselves as customer tastes have changed. 

For instance, the music industry loved the days when they had control over people's music tastes and purchasing. You would hear songs on the radio, and if you liked something, you would go down to your local CD (or earlier still, record) store and buy a physical copy of the song. 

Now, with platforms like YouTube and Spotify, customers have endless options at their fingertips. They can listen to any song, anytime, anywhere. 

Broader Customer Reach 

The digital shelf allows businesses to sell to customers that don't even live in their own country. Take the example of the eCommerce giant that is Amazon. 

Based in the US, the company ships to 131 countries worldwide

But for it to ship to these countries, it must get customers from there, too. If Amazon had been a retail store like Walmart or Target, it wouldn't have been able to reach customers outside the US. 

The digital shelf opened up a whole world of opportunity for the company. It's doing the same for smaller businesses, too. 

Elements of the Digital Shelf

Dataimpact by Nielson has isolated essential components of the digital shelf. We analyze some of them here. A consumer can't simply pick up an item from a digital shelf like they can in a physical store. 

Elements of the digital shelf 

Elements of the digital shelf

So, a digital site needs to find ways to compensate and build enough confidence in the consumer to complete a purchase. Here’s how each component partakes in this process. 

Out-of-stock Rates (OOS)

The availability of stock is essential to the success of any eCommerce business. Building up a potential customer's interest and hope in a product, only to dash it near the end of the funnel with an "Item unavailable" notice, will do nothing to engender confidence in your online store. 

In many ways, this is worse than for a traditional retailer. At least there, you can take all marketing signage down when you haven't got any stock left. 

Online, people are probably still encountering the missing product on your digital shelf, only to feel upset and annoyed when they find you can't fulfill their wishes.

Ideally, you should remove out-of-stock items from your digital shelf, so they don't appear in search results or on category pages. However, if that's not possible, add an out-of-stock tag on the product image in the category page so that people don't even click on it. 

Similarly, if a product is short on stock, show the number of items left or indicate that it's low in stock. For example, Nordstrom Rack, if an item is almost out of stock, mentions how many pieces are left so that customers can make a quick decision. 

Take a look at the size options for this Calvin Klein dress on Nordstrom's website. There's only one piece left for size 6, while size 8 isn't available at all. 

Both things are mentioned clearly on the product page. The customer doesn't end up adding the dress to the cart only to find out on the checkout page that their preferred size isn't available. 


Since the shelf isn't physical, the customers cannot see what a product looks like without images. That's where pictures and videos come in. 

Since 75% of customers make purchasing decisions based on product photography, businesses should take high-quality pictures of their products, ideally from all angles. 

You will typically see a carousel of images, perhaps even videos, on product pages and high-quality shots on many other web pages. On marketplaces like Amazon, you must comply with specific requirements relating to the imagery you post.

Ideally, you should use the same hero image for a product across all web platforms. This encourages you to present a consistent message.

Also, put yourself in your customers' shoes and then use the images to answer their questions about the product. Muted Luxe does this wonderfully. 

The company shows all colors of its homeware products in images. 

It then goes on to show those products in action, too. 

Similarly, for its earrings selection, the company doesn't only photograph the earrings, but also shows them on models. The close-ups and pictures of the earrings against white backgrounds are also available for the customer to inspect. 

They have even added pictures of what the packaging would look like. 

If your product has a distinguishing feature that might not be so visible in a full-size image, take close-up shots or allow zooming into the images. 

For example, Jerome Studio's unique selling proposition is its high-quality, sustainable designs. The brand's cardholder is made using vegetable-tanned Calfskin leather with fine stitching. 

If the cardholder was sitting in a shop display, the customer could open it to inspect the stitching. But what about the digital shelf?

Jerome Studio has a close-up of the stitching, allowing potential customers to see its quality up close. 


The internet is global. So, you could potentially have people viewing your product details from anywhere in the world. Therefore, you can't automatically assume the currency people will use and the price they expect to pay.

Adding the Hreflang tag to your product pages can help with this issue by specifying the language and country for which the page is intended. Google will then show the appropriate version of your page to users in different regions.

For example, if you go to Sephora's website from the US, the bottom of the page shows an option to go to the Canadian site. You can access the website in French, too, since Sephora has a localized version of its website for French-speaking customers. 

Another important aspect of pricing is offering multiple payment options. Not everyone has access to credit cards or popular online payment platforms like PayPal. 

Again, Sephora allows customers to pay through multiple credit cards and PayPal. There's also an option to pay via a gift card. 

Casetify offers even more payment options. Since the company ships worldwide, it makes sense for it to have as many payment options as possible. 

Also, you should indicate the currency you're using in any promotions and any delivery restrictions and indicate what any delivery costs will be.

For example, on Sephora's UAE website, the company has specified that customers get free shipping for orders over 250 AED. If this information was in USD, it could cause confusion and dissatisfaction for customers in the UAE.

Product Details 

Since customers are not there in person, they can't feel the material or fabric of the product. Photography may also cause some differences in color and texture representation. 

So, businesses must include thorough product details for all items in stock. Also, if your product comes in different variations, such as sizes and colors, include this information, too. 

For self-owned websites, businesses don't have to comply with any set guidelines. However, when publishing your products on marketplaces or distributors' websites, follow their rules. 

Places like Amazon expect in-depth product details pages, showing all the key information about each product. This includes the product name and title, images, bullet point details, product description, product variations (e.g., size and color), and customer reviews.

For example, Casetify includes case types and colors in its product descriptions. 

The company has also added a Product Comparison option, letting customers compare different cases. 

Notice how Casetify has tried to create a physical shop-like experience where customers can touch and compare products. 

There's also a Product Features section that highlights the main attributes of the product. 

The product page also shows customer reviews to provide social proof. These reviews can be sorted by language and the presence of images, making it easier for visitors to find the reviews they are most comfortable understanding. 

With 9 out of 10 customers reading reviews, this section is a must-have. 

Another good example is Versace. For its fragrances, the luxury brand includes details (scent notes), care, size & fit, shipping & return, and signature packaging information on the product page. 

In a shop, a customer would ask a sales representative all these questions. But since there's no representative present online, Versace has ensured all information is readily available. 

The Search Function

The search function on your website is synonymous with aisle layout or store signage in a physical store. It helps customers find the products they are looking for quickly. 

Include filters and sorting options in the search function so that customers can refine their search results. Also, implement Google-like search suggestions to make the process even easier for customers. 

For example, if you simply write ''water bottle'' on Walmart's search bar, it'll show you relevant products. It even shows popular search suggestions and products that you can pick up the same day. 

The better the search function, the more likely a customer is to make a purchase. Customers are not huge fans of scrolling through endless pages. 

On average, the highest number of pages seen at a buying session is for grocery products (31 pages), with other categories being significantly lower. You want the customer to find their desired product as soon as possible on your website so that they don’t bounce. 

Statistic: Number of pages seen at buying session worldwide in 2021, by vertical | Statista
Again, it’s like organizing your physical store. If your best selling item is displayed in a nook, people are going to come in, take one wide look at the store, miss it, and assume it’s not available. 

That’s a missed sale. 

The same happens online when your search function is clunky, and the customer can’t find what they need. 

Ratings and Reviews

We've already discussed how important ratings and reviews are when it comes to online shopping. BrightLocal data shows that customers are reading reviews on as much as five sites before making a purchase decision. 

While Google is the platform of choice for people to read reviews, 45% of shoppers also use Facebook and 44% head over to Yelp. 

Online eStore Advertising

Pay-per-click (PPC) marketing remains one of the best ways to grow your business, as we saw in our examination of Powerful PPC Trends to Adopt. A common type of PPC marketing is online eStore advertising. 

For example, by bidding for Sponsored Product ads at Amazon, you can ensure your ads are more visible than if you relied on organic search. 

We searched for ‘’fire pits’’ on Amazon. After the product featured from Amazon Brands, the next two products were sponsored. 

That’s what eCommerce advertising does for your product; it brings you to the top. 

If you click any of the search results, you’ll see more sponsored posts above the review section. By placing ads on relevant product pages, you can capture more customers since they’re already interested in the product or the product category. 


KPIs for the Digital Shelf

Like virtually everything else in marketing, you will want to find ways to measure the success of your placement on the digital shelf. Arguably, most eCommerce KPIs act as measures for your digital shelf performance.

However, there are a few you need to focus on a bit more. 

Conversion Rate

the percentage of shoppers who complete a transaction on your product detail pages (PDPs)

Product Availability

your stock levels and whether you have sufficient inventory volumes during peak retail periods. If a shopper can't add your product to their shopping cart when they want it, they will look elsewhere

Share of Search

the total organic searches made for your brand, divided by the total searches for all brands in its category. This shows how you are performing compared to your competitors

Share of Positive Reviews

consumers now place much credence on online reviews. The more of these you have for a product, the more visible you are likely to be to potential customers

Conversion Rate 

The conversion rate is perhaps the most important KPI for digital shelf performance. It measures how many website visitors are successfully converted into customers.

A lot of factors go into this metric, from your product descriptions and imagery to ease of shopping and availability of payment options. Apart from everything mentioned earlier, you can also assist customers in shopping by providing them with a virtual assistant. 

For example, Dick's Sporting Goods has a chatbot that helps customers find products. It also has a quick search menu for options like cancellation, returns, order status, product information, and price match. 

Another thing Dick's Sporting Goods does right is offer limited-time promotions. As you land on the website, you get a banner showing you a limited-time offer on select styles. 

Such tactics create urgency and improve conversion rates

Also, they have an option to ''complete the set'' on their product pages.

When you click on this option, you're taken to other related products to add to your cart. 

Along with boosting conversion rates, this option also increases average order value (AOV). 

Product Availability

Product availability measures the percentage of times your product is available for purchase when a customer visits your website. You want it to be as high as possible to drive sales. 

Share of Search 

How many people are searching for your brand or product? The more, the better. 

You can improve your share of search through a number of digital marketing tactics. Or, you can work with influencers. Check out our guide on how to find influencers to learn more. 

Share of Positive Reviews

Again, you want to have a high number of positive reviews for your products. Anything about 4.5 stars shows your customers that the product is worth buying. 


Compared to a conventional retail shelf, the digital shelf is massive. It effectively covers all locations online where a potential customer can gain knowledge and understanding of a product, including eCommerce stores and social commerce links where they could buy it. If you're operating in an eCommerce marketplace, such as Amazon, eBay, or Alibaba, our Global Marketplace Best Practices Guide may inspire you to improve your online offerings.

However, the digital shelf isn't limited to online shoppers nowadays. Even people who prefer a hands-on interaction with a product in-store often go online to research potential purchases first. 

Due to this, it's more important than ever to keep your digital shelves well organized and merchandised with thought, just like how your store's physical shelves. 

About the Author
Nadica Naceva, Head of Content at Influencer Marketing Hub, is a seasoned writer and reviewer with in-depth expertise in digital and content marketing. Leveraging her extensive experience in guiding content creation and strategic direction, Nadica brings a critical eye and analytical approach to reviewing articles and educational pieces. Her commitment to accuracy, integrity, and innovation with each review helps IMH grow as a leading source in influencer marketing. Her insights are backed by first-party data, ensuring content meets the highest standards of relevance.