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How CPG is Winning the Digital Shelf

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Tyler Pietz

How CPG is Winning the Digital Shelf

As part of the recent WBR Digital Food & Beverage Summit, I moderated a panel discussion, “Digital Shelf 2.0: Best Practices for Winning in Digital Shelf.” The panel brought together leadership from across the CPG space—including Nestle USA, Coca-Cola Consolidated, Mondelēz International, and Crossmark—to discuss shifting content requirements and media needs as eCommerce rises in user adoption and relevance.

Winning the Digital Shelf is an Evolving Process

It’s no secret that eCommerce has enjoyed explosive growth over the past year, as the pandemic kept consumers at home: eMarketer reports that over half of internet users bought groceries online in 2020, and those who began investing in eCommerce years ago have managed to future-proof their business. Jie Cheng (Global Head of eCommerce & Direct-to-Consumer, Mondelēz International) noted that Mondelēz’s investment in eCommerce as far back as 2015 foundationally set the brand up for success in 2020, owing 6% of its global business to online sales. “Fortunately, we could capitalize on the tailwind of eCommerce and ramp up our investment quite significantly,” Cheng said.

For brands that are just dipping their toes into eCommerce now out of necessity, it’s important to realize you’re never too late to embrace the digital shelf—and as new platforms and needs arise, eCommerce should be treated as an always-evolving process. Following Mondelēz’s advances in the past year, Cheng and her team are road mapping where to go next. “The idea is, how can we continue to make sure we’re serving consumers where they are, and in the meantime make sure we are purposeful in how we approach different retailers, our D2C business or our eB2B business?” she said.

Quote from digital summit

Educate and Future-Proof Teams

One of the greatest challenges in winning the digital shelf is allocating the resources needed to fulfill new customer needs. Upon leaning into eCommerce in 2016, Coca-Cola Consolidated—the largest independent Coca-Cola bottler in the US—began shifting some of its focus from the bottling side to instead focus on customers. “We had an account team mentality but saw all this volume shifting into different channels,” said Michaela Downes, whose role as Director of Channel Commercialization – Digital exists to integrate processes and educate people throughout the business on omnichannel strategy. “This wasn’t something from just a sales perspective, but rather: where are we going into the future?”

And while brands may build a digital shelf strategy around the consumer, Gloria DeCoste (Director of Digital Marketing, eCommerce, Nestle USA) noted the importance of supporting your employees as a step toward business transformation. “What do our career paths look like—ten years from now, can you be successful without knowing this world?” she asked. “We think about how we build the knowledge to make our people successful, which builds confidence in this new space. Build out the education.”

Digital summite quote

Realize Unique Challenges in CPG

As part of the WBR Digital Food & Beverage Virtual Summit, Cheng noted that the category is a totally different beast compared to other goods being sold online, with its own unique challenges. Shipping chocolate during summer months can be challenging, she mentioned, while snacks can be crushed in delivery unless packaging is sturdy—a reminder to consider not only how your brand shows up on digital platforms, but how delivery and fulfilment factor into the consumer experience.

Another critical example is replicating the impulse buy. “You need to work with your retail or last-mile delivery partners,” Cheng said. “We did a lot of test and learn pilot projects last year to offer consumers the right time before checkout, to remind them to add something to their cart or make a complementary purchase.”

Test and Learn—Then Combine Holistic

There’s no magic bullet for winning the digital shelf; what works for one brand doesn’t translate to guaranteed success for another. But Stephen Koven (Vice President, Omnichannel & eCommerce, Crossmark) recommends that brands first consider the specific goal they’ve set out to achieve, then use a “test and learn” approach to iterate their strategy. A great example of this is how many brands have been investing in direct-to-consumer platforms.

“Use DTC as a learning channel,” said Koven. “See how products perform, and capture where things are changing on the digital shelf.” Product reviews can be a great value-add because they offer social proof and help brands get into the mind of the consumer. On that note, such experimentations in DTC can rake in valuable insights. “Where is first-party or third-party data doing to land—and will third-party data be available in the future?” Koven said.

As brands build insights and apply learnings, they shouldn’t exist in a silo; DeCoste noted how increasingly, success on both the digital shelf and physical one is closely related. “We need to create products that simultaneously fulfill in-store and online demand,” she said. “We have an opportunity to build a new gold standard shelf and think about that throughout the organization.” Whether sharing knowledge across teams, adopting entirely new channels or reallocating resources, brands can set themselves up for success to win the digital shelf—and continually adapt to consumers’ ever-evolving need

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