The Digital Shelf Requires Digital Packaging

The following is the third in a three-part series from Edge by Ascential on e-commerce packaging optimization and the challenges and opportunities of translating packaging strategies to the digital shelf. The first part examined Amazon’s frustration-free packaging requirements and the second the need to reconsider pack sizes for the digital shelf.

“We already have a database of product images. Let’s just use those and copy the text from the back of the package for the product descriptions.” 

This argument was heard in the halls of brand marketers 15 years ago, but it also was used somewhere last week and is sure to be repeated again tomorrow. It seems perfectly logical: If packaging designs and strategies work in brick-and-mortar retail, why not online as well? But shopping the digital shelf is vastly different from shopping the physical store. We need to challenge our assumptions about how traditional packaging works and create new solutions specific to the online channel. 

Packaging vs. the Product Detail Page
When most brands think about selling their products online, they think about the content they need for the product detail page (PDP). Amazon,, and other e-commerce platforms each have their own version of a PDP, and brands just need to fill in the blanks of an item set-up form: an image, some bullet points, a product description and some technical details. Since these are already on the package, the easiest thing to do is simply copy everything from there. Job done, right? 

Perhaps, but that won’t drive success. 

Consider the last time you went shopping for something new; perhaps you wanted to try a new type of shampoo or were considering what cold medicine to buy. As you approached the shelf, logos, colors and shapes started catching your eye. As you drew closer, you picked up a product and probably began studying the front, back and sides of the package.

But the digital shelf provides a fundamentally different experience:

1. Product images are thumbnail-sized in search results and not too much bigger on the PDP.
2. The package can’t be picked up and examined closely.
3. Considering different products requires toggling back and forth between the search results page and the PDPs.

Therefore, using traditional product package images for the digital shelf adds clicks, creates frustration and leads to lost conversion opportunities. Brands must stop thinking about physical packaging as translatable to the digital environment and start thinking about the PDP as a “digital package” where every element works together to communicate a unified brand proposition.

How to Think Digitally 
One thing hasn't changed from the physical to the digital shelf: a product has to be eye-catching. Traditional retail practice states that a package should grab attention from 24" and be legible at 6", but how does that translate to the digital shelf?

For years, package shots like the one at right were the industry standard: a design created to be effective in a brick-and-mortar environment is photographed and plastered onto the PDP. 

Compare that to an image specifically designed for the digital shelf:

Which image is more effective? The Samsung example doesn't bother with representing traditional packaging, instead putting the most important information directly onto the recognizable shape of the product. It’s more impactful because the image is:

  • Eye-catching: When shoppers browse an online store, the image is the first thing they see — even before reading the product title. An image that doesn't catch the eye will be ignored. 
  • Legible: We live in the omnichannel age. Product images have to be as legible on tiny mobile devices as they are on 4K TVs. 
  • Informative: Shoppers don't have the time or inclination to read everything. If an image doesn't convey the most important information effortlessly, consumers will scroll right past it. 

The real estate of primary images is more valuable than ever, doing all the heavy lifting to convince shoppers to click through to the PDP (the digital equivalent of the back of the package). On the other hand, instead of just a few inches of glossy cardstock, brands now have a virtually unlimited digital canvas they can use to close the deal. 

Don’t Copy the Copy
Another consideration is the copy. It’s tempting to simply pull copy from packaging or a brand’s 
website. But packaging and consumer-facing copy is not the same as e-commerce copy. Consider how you might talk about your brand to someone you meet at a party versus how it might be described during an in-store demo or sampling event. Consumer language isn’t the same as shopper language, so make sure the online copy reflects the difference. 

A product detail page is the “digital package,” but that doesn't mean it should follow the same rules as a physical package. Instead, they should play to the unique strengths of the digital environment. High-resolution images can showcase the product being used by consumers. Video content can act as an interactive product demo. High-quality content can not only describe the product, but highlight the brand’s personality and values. Interacting with current and potential customers through user-generated questions and reviews can build equity and loyalty. 

Don't try to replicate the in-store experience but create something better. In the e-commerce world, brands must challenge existing habits and pioneer new ways to think about digital packaging for the digital shelf.

About the Author 
Danny Silverman is chief marketing officer for Edge by Ascential, an established industry thought leader with more than 14 years of experience helping brands grow their online presence and sales. He spent eight of those years at Johnson & Johnson, where he led the company’s e-commerce strategy.