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Online Category Management

As shoppers do more of their shopping online, the e-commerce channel needs to keep up with the changing demands of shoppers and evolving channel capabilities.

Many suppliers have become very adept at delivering category management initiatives for bricks and mortar stores. Unfortunately, when it comes to online or e-commerce, this can be an afterthought. The good news is that online retailers are looking for suppliers to help them grow, suppliers just need to step up.

A supplier’s role is to provide insight and guidance on how to deliver for shoppers, fulfilling their needs and expectations. The principles of category management implemented in store need to be adapted for online. When you are designing your category strategies ensure that online is part of the consideration set with specific opportunities, strategies and tactics identified. Put an understanding of your shoppers’ needs and expectations at the heart of your strategies and tactics. Buy the right data, conduct research and lead your categories.

CPG companies should create a data-driven approach. Buying relevant online data and when running shopper research add online as a key channel. Understanding the role that your category plays in the online channel is a good starting point. How important is your channel to the overall basket? Is your category the same online as instore? Do shoppers expect to find a different set of products in your category to those that they expect to find in-store?

A good starting point is to thoroughly audit all online stores. What are they doing overall? What are they doing with my category? How is it promoted? What is their range?

Review performance. How is each platform performing v each other? How is my category performing? How are my sku’s performing? Look outside your category within your optimum retailers, but also look more broadly to other retailers who wouldn’t historically sell your category. What can you learn? What can you copy?

Set KPIs, know what is expected and what good looks like. Don’t be put off by lack of data. Choose the correct metrics and try to source data to support these.

Having an evolving approach, investigating and understanding shopper and channel trends, and creating suitable strategies and tactics will make you a leading supplier. This approach will give you the opportunity to sit at a retailers table.

What does good online category management include?

Here we will use an old model with a new twist – the 4 P’s.



Key to performing well online is to be on the first page of a search and even more importantly above the fold. Setting up your products correctly is key. It is very important to understand how to influence this. The main way to do so is through product description and tagging.

Understand how each sites algorithm works and how it prioritises results.

Product details

Ensure that products are set up correctly the first time, either with the retailer or a product data supplier e.g. Brandbank. Ensure that you fill in all the fields with the correct data, no abbreviations, no industry jargon. Make the most of the space available. Don’t cut corners.

Put yourself in the shoes of the shopper, what language do they use? What search terms might they use to find your product? What do they expect to see? Try and find your product yourself, are you successful? Your product title is key, ensure that any keywords are included, any unique points that your product has e.g. gluten free, nut free. Consider including brand, variant, category and size. Ask your retailers to share the most used search terms for your products and categories.

Make your product easy to find.

Product page

This contains in-depth information about your products.

Ensure that your product page is optimised. Replicate all the points above re details. If as a shopper I click through to your products’ page, what will convert a search to purchase? What information do I need? How do you make it compelling? Sell your products benefit. If your product has a USP highlight it (include it in its descriptor).

A detailed product description is essential. Include features, benefits and differentiators, flavour and serving suggestions.

Consider including videos if showing usage adds to the products proposition or highlights the product’s benefits. Shoppers find videos helpful, however keep them short, impactful and don’t rely on sound (use titles if necessary).

If your product has reviews, ensure that you respond to any feedback and then see if the feedback is such that you should consider changing any element of your product e.g. is the feedback about packaging – is your packaging currently not fit for online delivery? Ask your retailer if they have a mechanic whereby the can ask shoppers for a review of a product that they have bought.


Shoppers look at images first. Your product needs to be instantly recognisable. Your images need to be a good quality and show the most up to date packaging. Their file name should be consistent with the product description.

The primary image should be of the product and the secondary images should show alternatives views, serving suggestions, lifestyle images or current marketing collateral.

If your retailer uses a product data supplier, ensure that if you have updated your products with the product data supplier that your retailers know that they have to get an update from them.

Ensure that your images represent the product that the shopper will get delivered.


Understand key shopper missions for your retailer and ensure that the range offered reflects this and potential consumption occasions. Is gifting a mission? Align products and pack sizes to both mission and occasions.

The fixed space offered by traditional stores is no longer an issue here. Unfortunately, this is also true for your competition and opens up opportunities for a broader range of competition and competitive categories. Online also offers opportunities for products not traditionally sold, where word of mouth (driven by digital channels) can drive demand.

Assortment is frequently used by retailers as a way to create a point of difference v their competition, as risks are reduced and lack of shelf space restrictions mean niche brands or growing segments (on trend) can increase their point of difference.

The frequency of range reviews also changes the dynamics in this channel. No longer does a retailer have to wait for a range review to come up on a timetable or store resources to be available in order to update their range, in this channel it can be done at a flick of a switch.

Review online sales and suggest the best range for the online channel (this is not necessarily the same range as for bricks and mortar stores). Is there an opportunity to sell online only skus (make sure that you identify them as such, so shoppers don’t try to find them instore)? Bigger packs? Different formats? See if it is possible to get a list of null returns i.e. products that shoppers have searched on, but there wasn’t a product listed that had that description. Also remember that in many instances, online deliveries are fulfilled from bricks and mortar stores Do you need to adapt the range in the physical store, so that it is available online? If the orders are picked from a warehouse, your range may be less constrained, but it still needs to be suitable for the channel.


Use the tools available to you to check the availability of your products. A large proportion of online sales are fulfilled by the shopper shopping from either the last order they had delivered or from their favourites. There is a risk that if they are not able to buy your product that they will convert to another product, which will now feature in either their favourites or last times order. Will they ever buy your product again?

If you are having availability issues, check whether the issue is your supply chain or the retailers.

Some products can be affected by seasonal demand, ensure that this is discussed and additional volume purchased to cover this demand.


After several weeks the website algorithm will suggest substitutions. Until then you should ensure that when one of your products is listed, that you suggest potential substitutions.

Ensure delisted skus are removed from websites.


Where to play

Which retailers are big and /or growing? Where is your competitive set doing well, and what are they doing? Understanding where shoppers are shopping and which retailers are the best fit for your brand, may identify where you should spend your time and effort. To use an often used phrase – ‘Fish where the fish are’.


A good structure online, assists shoppers to navigate quickly and find the product they want.

Does the website’s taxonomy reflect the way a shopper decides on a purchase? Can your products be found in the correct place, if the shopper searches using a menu? You have the opportunity to influence the retailer if you have insights that delivers a shopper based taxonomy. A shopper decision tree influences the website taxonomy.

Is your product tagged to the correct categories and shelves? Can your product be tagged to multiple categories?


Promotions can drive incremental purchase and convert interest into purchase. Remember to include online in any strategic shopper marketing activity, using the optimum mechanics to change shopper behaviour.

What promotions run in this channel for the total channel, for your category, by your competitors? What can you learn? What promotions do you do? Which ones work well for you, short term / long term? Which promotions change shopper behaviour as required? What are the opportunities for cross-selling?

Have you tried any of the media options available e.g. banner ads etc.? What effect do they have? Is this type of activity the norm for your category? Ensure any ads are consistent with brand / marketing activation, with a clear call to action.

What promotions have you seen in other retailers? Even in non-competitor retailers? What can you learn? Use test and learn to validate what works for you.

Create engaging and emotional content.

If your product is an ingredient get involved with menus, particularly if the website has the functionality where the ingredients for a meal can be added to the shopping cart. This is a great opportunity for add-on sales and a good way into favourites. Ensure any demand that is driven by a feature of this type is covered by stock availability.

Optimise seasonal or occasion based opportunities.

Are there opportunities for cross selling – ‘if you like this, you’ll like that’. Suggest combinations.


Monitor prices for your products and competitors and do this across the channel. What are the trends? What do you need to be aware of?

Due to the flexibility of this channel, similarly to promotions, there is the opportunity to test pricing and see the impact on sales. You can test different strategies and monitor the effect. Combining pricing and promotions testing could significantly enhance your understanding and inform future strategies and tactics.

Is there an opportunity for subscription based pricing?


Online is a growing channel, which is set to explode. Using some of the disciplines utilised so well in traditional stores is the way to establish a solid base. Keep at the forefront of trends and use the tactics that are available. Make shopper insights as important here as elsewhere and add value to your retailers, helping them thrive.

Create guidelines for best practice for online. Include all of the elements mentioned. This will ensure a consistent approach for the channel and allow results and knowledge to be shared. Whilst each retailer may be unique, there will be many areas that are common across the channel.

  • Set up all products diligently, time spent here will reap rewards later.
  • Identify where you want to play – not all retailers are equal.
  • Use test and learn to create new insights that will inform your strategies and tactics.
  • Set KPIs and monitor (even if the data is not yet available).
  • Create specific channel strategies and tactics.

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