The Art of Winning at Shelf | 4 Rules to Dominate Retail Spaces

Let's begin your training with 4 basic rules to help you achieve greater retail shelf performance.

  • Consumer Insights & Trends
  • Strategy
by Crew
June 27, 2023

Packaging Webinar: Shelf Success - Packaging Principles to Win at Retail

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Have you heard of The Art of War?

It's an ancient Chinese military essay written by Sun Tzu, a military strategist and general. 

The book speaks to the importance of understanding and adapting to one's environment. It outlines the importance of preparation, planning, and the need to be adaptable and flexible, as well as the value of knowing oneself, and one's enemy.

For those in the CPG world, the retail shelf is its own kind of battlefield. You compete (sometimes fiercely) with other opponents for shelf space, and to catch the interest of shoppers. 

Except here, in the aisles of Walmart and the webpages of Amazon, your weapons are packaging, pricing, digital visibility, and a whole lot more.

Are you ready to learn the art of winning at shelf? Excellent.

Rule #1 - To Achieve Success In Retail, First Understand The Needs Of The Shopper & The Role Of Your Product.

We can't overstate the importance of understanding shopper needs.

Too many products fail before they even step foot into the retail arena because they miss this most basic point: Your product needs a purpose, one that resonates with your target audience.

When we say "product purpose" what we're talking about is the intended use of the product. Why was it designed or created? What is the primary benefit or value that the product provides to the consumer? 

Here are a few varying types of purpose:

The product supports a clear occasion - Eating in the car, for example. An extra-large multi-pack of hamburger buns that are suited for family gatherings or entertaining groups would also fit the bill.

The product solves a need for a specific type of person - The obvious segmentation is by age - children, seniors, etc.  However you can look at other psychographics too. The spicy-food lover, the breakfast enthusiast, the cheese lover, or the coffee aficionado.

The product has a problem to solve - Your product might help those who have allergies. It can make baking easier. It can be the dairy or soy-free alternative. It can be a no-sugar alternative. It can be something that brings people together, or lets people sleep. You can be the one that introduces more variety, or tastes. Pick a category, listen to consumers' problems about the category, and engineer a product that solves it.

The bad news? If you don’t know your product’s purpose, winning at the shelf might require some market research.

The good news? Conducting this research is becoming easier (and cheaper) than ever before, with brands and agencies conducting research through nimble methods such as surveys, focus groups, even AI tools.

By gaining insights into consumer needs and their behaviors, you can optimize your product to maximize the likelihood of sales both in-store and online.

Rule #2 - To Come Off The Retail Shelf, One Must First Be Seen

Effective product packaging and merchandising can make all the difference in today's competitive retail environments. 

This is true for brick and mortar stores, as well as online. There is a growing amount of attention being placed on how to attract clicks, and improve the visibility of products found on digital platforms like Instacart, Google Shopping results, and Amazon.

In the long run, it's important for brand owners and brand managers to think about the following:

Packaging & Visibility

When walking grocery aisles, consumers are bombarded with an overwhelming number of choices. It's harder than ever for brands to catch the eyes of shoppers.

Today, it’s common to find brands breaking category rules by embracing tactics such as bold color usage, using unique packaging, or adopting minimalist aesthetics. These approaches can be advantageous, especially in a digital environment where the job is to stand out amongst a sea of products on a screen. But sometimes brands can get too carried away and forget the basics. Things like not highlighting their specific product attributes (eg. Spicy, Low Sodium, Vanilla, etc.)

Bold Twigz Brand Packaging Stands Out on the Shelf

ABOVE: After the Twigz brand redesign & packaging updates, total sales increased +480% over 6 months post launch. Online sales increased 100% first month after launch and 150% over first two months

Packaging shape is also a consideration, but we urge some caution. Unusual shapes can be beneficial, or problematic. While a unique package can help a product stand out on the shelf, it might also cause confusion if the design is too different from what shoppers are used to. It's not only about your competitors either; Inconsistent shapes within a brand family can also sow confusion.

Your takeaway: Not only should packaging be visually appealing, it needs to be clear and concise in its messaging, shape, and take into consideration where it’s being viewed, the category, and its place in your brand’s family of products.

Effective In-Store Shelf Placement Strategies

Sales efforts can be boosted by effective shelf placement strategies that cater to shoppers.

Brand blocking is one such retail merchandising strategy in which products from the same brand are placed together in a designated section of a store or on a specific shelf. You can further increase this effectiveness by utilizing color blocking.

The goal of brand blocking is to create a clear and organized display that allows shoppers to quickly and easily find products from their preferred brand. This can be especially effective for brands with a wide range of products.

Placing items at eye-level, or grouping complementary products together can also help in catching a consumer's eye. Brands might also request adjacency (who you want to be beside) to a retailer - You might not get it, but you can alway try asking.

Convenience & On-Shelf Availability

Convenience and availability are two critical factors that can make or break a product in the retail space. A brand can spend lot of time making a product visually appealing, but if it's difficult to find, or consistently out of stock, your customers will quickly lose interest. This means having enough inventory on hand to meet demand. Inability to keep inventory on shelves can leave retailers and customers unhappy.

Thinking About Pricing

Pricing can be a powerful tool to attract (or discourage) potential customers. When something is priced reasonably, it becomes enticing and effortless to pick off the shelf. However, if the price is too high, many may be forced to pass on it.

There are three main pricing strategies to explore:

High/Low Pricing: This strategy involves setting the initial price of a product or service relatively high and then periodically offering discounts or sales promotions to create a sense of urgency and encourage customers to make a purchase. The higher initial price can create the perception of quality or exclusivity.

Everyday Pricing: This strategy focuses on setting a consistent, competitive price for a product or service instead of relying on frequent sales or discounts. The emphasis is on providing customers with a fair and reasonable price all the time.

Price/Pack Architecture: This is a pricing strategy where manufacturers offer different product variants or packaging options at various price points. It gives manufacturers more control over their product portfolio and allows them to occupy more shelf space while hitting specific price points. Consumers benefit from the flexibility to choose products based on their budget and family needs.

Want to be winning at shelf? Put the right pricing strategy into place.

Rule #3 - If Your Product Does Not Work, It Shall Be a Short Battle

This rule is simple. Winning at the shelf means products must live up their claims.

Take the alternative meat producer Beyond Meat. Their primary product claim is "plant-based, vegan meat that's tasty & better for you."

Claims like these need to be realized. It would have been a quick death for Beyond Meat had they not been able to make a plant-based patty that tasted good, could be reasonably mistaken for a beef burger, and proven its nutritional benefits.

Now, whether something "works" extends well beyond taste and nutritional claims. 

We recommend brands consider the entire customer experience. From spotting a product on shelf, carrying it home, opening the packaging, and more. 

If we're talking online shopping, this includes the website experience, free shipping offers, real time shipping updates, the unboxing experience, product returns, and all the rest.

If your product succeeds in these experience moments, it “works”, and you'll earn repeat business, which is the ultimate way to succeed.

Rule #4 - One Must Not Forget Mastery of The Digital Shelf

Remember, winning at the shelf is not just about physical shelves anymore, but also about mastering the digital shelf too.

What is the digital shelf?

That's a good question.

A recent study of 1000 shoppers found that 89% of social users have bought something they FIRST spotted on Instagram.

So does that mean that the "digital shelf" is an Instagram shopping experience? Or maybe it's an Amazon search result? Or a brand's product landing page? 

We take the view that it is all of the above.

The "digital shelf" is made up of a variety of user journeys that take place across a wide variety of touch-points. So this includes online shopping channels like online marketplaces, search results, social media platforms, as well as brand websites. Your digital shelf is your product’s entire online footprint.

How do you win the digital shelf?

Winning the digital shelf requires brands do more than just optimize a few SEO tags, or collect some customer reviews for their website.

Because the digital shelf extends across multiple experiences, it's more helpful to zoom out, and see the digital shelf as a bigger eco-system.

While the experience of shopping in a physical store is a fairly typically linear process, with shoppers making lists, walking aisles, checking their smartphones a couple of times, grabbing what they need, and exiting. The digital shopping experience is non-linear, and few journeys look the same. That means brands must deliver as consistent of a brand experience as possible across all digital touch-points, while attempting to make shopping as effortless as possible.

Navigating the Evolving Ecommerce Landscape

Following the arrival of Covid-19, there was a period of rapid expansion and excitement (2020-2021). During that period it felt like everybody was busy building a Shopify store, but things have changed. The hype around eCommerce has slowed. In part because consumers started going back to their usual shopping routines, and partially because of logistics and profitability. Supply chain disruption, inflation, and increasing noise/competition added complexity for many brands, squeezing profitability to the point many brands backed out.

Ecommerce is still a growing landscape, but how a brand participates can vary. At Crew, we help brands determine if and what online distribution channel is appropriate at their given stage of maturity and distribution.

Winning at Shelf - Conclusion

Success today demands a strategic combination of merchandising, digital presence, and eye-catching packaging. Brands must also be attuned to the preferences and desires of their consumers. By employing these ideas, coupled with convenience and availability, brands can ensure that they’ll have a better chance to win at the shelf.

*Yotpo Instagram study:

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