3 Keys to Getting — and Staying — on Shelf in the COVID-19 ‘Post-Blast’ Environment


With somewhat more positive news coming out about the status of the pandemic, consumer goods companies are working to return to normal operations — normal now being defined in any number of ways — and that work includes new product launches.

Innovative product development and distribution remain central to growing revenue in the grocery space but what does new product introduction entail in the COVID-19 “post-blast” environment?

So, here’s a spoiler alert: The three keys to successful product launch are the same now as they were before the outbreak. But executing on them is all new and brands need to adjust accordingly.

1. Attaining critical speed to shelf is a ‘higher stakes’ game today

Being first to market with a product that meets identified shopper demand is the first key to a successful introduction and brands that succeed in this will capture a greater “fair share” of the category. Getting on the shelf and establishing a presence ahead of the competition is a persistent, maintainable advantage that will impact the product’s longevity.

Conversely, those that follow will be challenged to enter the product space with any real impact and will find themselves struggling to catch up.

With COVID-conscious shoppers making fewer trips and retailers still contending with any number of pandemic-induced logistics challenges, getting the attention of the former and the active support of the latter has never been more difficult. In order to successfully engage both groups, brands will need to go “all-in” — committing comprehensive promotion and planning resources to the launch.

Being heard above the noise, creating buzz around the product, and motivating retailers to accelerate distribution will be an omnichannel undertaking and one in which brands are going to have to do the heavy lifting. In order to get on the shelf with the desired rapidity, Consumer goods companies need to come to the table with a serious stack of chips, a data-driven multi-channel promotion plan, and a clear understanding of their trading partners’ needs and requirements.

2. Generating velocity demands a prominent placement on the virtual shelf

The second key to a successful product introduction is quickly generating sales velocity on new items. This is never easy as manufacturers typically don’t have much runway to demonstrate that their new offerings deserve a place in the category at retail and shelf-space at the retailer. 

Now, with the pandemic’s impact on store operations, this has become an even greater challenge as there’s no one in store right now to do resets or cut-ins, with most labor being devoted to meeting more immediate consumer needs — including fulfilling online orders. Add to that the current dearth of in-store merchandising and promotion and the mountain just gets harder to climb.

Consumer goods companies need to come to the table with a serious stack of chips.

So how to generate the needed velocity? Enhanced digital engagement. Online grocery retail was already trending upward prior to the outbreak but, with the institution of stay-at-home orders, grocery e-commerce has exploded. The ranks of regular grocery e-commerce shoppers have swelled and all indications are that online grocery shopping has become a permanent part of the path to purchase for tens of millions of American consumers.

But, simply being included in a retailer’s online gallery will not be sufficient to move product at the desired volume. Brands will need to take advantage of retailer media networks to effectively promote, prominently position, and drive awareness and purchase of their new products.

Developing mutually beneficial data-sharing solutions with retailers will be critical to building consumer awareness by enabling cost-efficient co-branded events targeting shoppers with a proven affinity for the promoted product type.

3. Driving product trial is now a decidedly digital undertaking

The third key to new product success is, of course, generating consumer trial. If brands can’t turn awareness into purchase — and then repeat purchase — someone’s great idea for growing share of a category will just die on the vine. To drive needed initial purchase, brands will need to expand and enhance their digital efforts beyond those already discussed by employing digital promotions and influencer marketing.

Promotions have always been extremely effective in driving trial and that has not changed. With more and more consumers facing economic hardship, promotion sensitivity (and demand) is increasing, along with the power of coupons to activate shoppers around new products.

What is changing in the coupon space is the growing preference among shoppers for digital promotions. These “touchless” promotions — that are easily acquired by shoppers and easily managed by marketers — are only going to increase in popularity and only make sense as part of a new product launch.

At the same time, overlaying digital promotions with consumer-engaging and awareness-building influencer campaigns will increase the sales-driving impact of both. Digitally delivering authentic, relevant content around a not-yet-familiar product is an excellent way to increase use potential and providing a savings opportunity along with that content is an excellent way to increase purchase potential.

The presence of COVID-19 has certainly complicated the new product launch process but it hasn’t made it impossible. Brands that lean into the digital transformation that’s reshaping grocery retail and retool their approach to match will have every chance of success.

Jim Hertel, Senior Vice President Analytics Client Development at Inmar Intelligence

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