Designing for the Digital Shelf

3 Key Principles to Convert Sales

(Originally posted July 15, 2022. Updated on August 10, 2022.)

As experts in brand visual assets, we know what works for the in-store shelf does not always translate to the digital shelf such as: creating a brand block, larger packs, updating the planogram, and the ability for shoppers to see or touch the product. In e-commerce, there are no brand blocks as the order changes and/or is random. Shoppers can sort, filter, or refine search results as they see fit. The category landing page constantly changes. The thumbnail is literally the size of a thumb and small. There is more effort needed to interact closely and due to the quick scrolling behavior, there is much lower engagement.

These e-tailer sites are very dynamic and competitive. Your SKU may be the best seller one hour and then it changes the next hour depending on your sales. A plethora of factors determine your brand’s position in the search results as well as Amazon’s choice. These flags of “Best Seller” and “Amazon’s Choice” are important to the shopper and to increase your sales. Also, we know that the higher your position: the higher your sales.

If shoppers frequently leave your product detail page (PDP) without making a purchase, Amazon considers it a high exit rate, negatively impacting your SKU in rankings. Other factors working against your brand may be the amount of time a consumer spends on your page: if it’s a short amount of time, Amazon will flag your product as not the right product for those search keywords. No conversion for you, no conversion for Amazon, that all counts against you with e-tailers.

Listings that perform well and have good content are more likely to perform better. Conversely, listings that perform poorly and don’t have good content are more likely to keep performing poorly. This is a continuous loop. So, how do you break the cycle and keep shoppers engaged with your products so your brand performs well?

Your E-Commerce Images Matter

It only takes the brain 13 milliseconds to process an entire image based on MIT research. It takes the brain a lot more effort to process language than it does images. We are so hard-wired to images that we can process and respond to them even without all the details. Pictured right is an ad campaign McDonald’s ran in Puerto Rico this year. Our brains fill in the missing pieces and we connect what we see to what we recognize and associate with the visual, and this informs our choice.

Our eye-tracking research confirms that shoppers’ attention while shopping online focuses primarily on images especially in the PDP. And all images are important. Shoppers expect to see roughly 6 images per page. We’ve found that engagement varies by shopping mission and mindset, and there are some missions that drive even more interaction with images including the Enhanced Content or From the Manufacturer images located below the fold.  

Ensuring your PDPs have strong images is critical for conversion but having engaging images can be hard especially when 61% of retail traffic is mobile. Behaviors on mobile devices are faster and images must work even harder. People scroll faster on Mobile & Tablet than Desktop. People conduct shorter sessions on mobile because oftentimes they are out and about. Shoppers refuse to read much on mobile as the text is too small, screen is too bright, product titles are often ignored, and most of the time, when shoppers are on their mobile devices, brands are competing for their attention against the numerous other notifications they are being inundated with.

Key Principles for Designing for the Digital Shelf

Our database of thousands of e-commerce images enables us to uncover critical insights for success. Here are 3 key principles to succeed in e-commerce and convert sales: High Contrast = High Visibility, Reduce the Cognitive Effort, and lastly, Connect Emotionally.

High Contrast = High Visibility 

Contrast is key and you must keep the e-commerce context in mind when designing hero images. There are rules and guidelines that you must follow per e-retailers when designing these images. For example, on Amazon, you have to show either the pack or product as it is (with some minor tweaks). That said, there is always opportunity to increase contrast and pop. Prime example are these Colgate items where the more colorful packs such as the green and red items pop much more than the 2-in-1 Whitening and Total which have more white packages that fade into the background:

Design tactics like showing the product on an angle to increase the contrast vs. the background can help items with white backgrounds stand out. As you design your hero images, think about how these will be shown on the search results page to maximize its contrast and ability to be noticed. However, be careful to not show boxes with too many elements on its side panels causing a cluttered looking image.

Contrast applies to other images as well. On lifestyle and benefit images, color contrast (or other forms of contrast like position, shapes, etc.) can be used to highlight the key areas of the image, usually your product or a specific benefit. Both these images place emphasis on the candy item but the one on the right does a better job at highlighting the actual candy. Our database learning shows time after time that images that use contrast to highlight critical image elements perform better overall. 

Reduce Cognitive Effort 

our database of thousands of images has taught us that primary images that are optimized for Mobile Phones, also known as Mobile Ready Hero Images (MRHI) are both easier to comprehend AND more appealing. The image on the left emphasizes the brand name, the specific variant, and the size. You can see how much easier it is to figure out what you are buying looking at this image vs. the one on the right especially when you consider the rapid scroll and low attention context mentioned earlier. Lowering the Barriers of engagement with your brand at the digital shelf will result in more conversion. Not all retailers allow MRHI so it’s important to design with your key retailers in mind, and it’s important to know how much leeway exists in simplifying pack shots. Amazon does not allow this style of MRHI, but there are some simplifications to the pack image that can still be made which will help comprehension and appeal.

For multipack images, it is important to ensure that the key brand visual elements come through. This equity resonates with your shoppers. In addition, emphasis on the wrong elements of an image also applies to lifestyle and benefit images, not just the hero image. It’s always important to avoid clutter. The image pictured right tries to paint a Halloween scene, but it is hard to tell which products are in the bowl. Also, your attention is drawn around the product rather than to the product itself.

When presenting benefit images, be careful about the amount of text included. As stated previously, shoppers are not going to stop and read especially if the images make it hard to do so. The below image on the right includes long sentences, written in a font style and size that aren’t easy to read. It takes too much effort to process, so people will likely just skip it. If you need to include text, do so in a way that’s intuitive and makes it easy for the viewer.

The image on the left has a clear & prominent headline. If there’s one thing to take away from the image, it’s 6-in-1 protection, and it is super clear. If a shopper wanted to learn more, they can see the benefits listed numerically. Our database learning tells us that images with text that demand less cognitive effort, for example: short phrases and an intuitive numbered list makes it much easier to read.

Connect Emotionally  

We know in both physical retail and especially e-commerce, consumers shop with their emotions. To connect with them, make it visceral, use real photography versus illustrations, make sure it’s an intuitive context, use human interaction with the product or in an everyday context, and make sure to have the human facing the camera and not cropped. You have limited space on the PDP so avoid any empty spaces such as the image to the right. It comes off cold and the opportunity is wasted. Our database learning shows that across categories, images with realistic, human interactions or everyday life depictions are more effective.

At Behaviorally, we’ve listened to our clients and understand the challenge of managing the large amounts of e-commerce images to ensure that they meet all the above principles. Let us help you eliminate the barriers to being selected and maximize your online conversion rates through our e-commerce image optimization tool, Flash.PDP™.

Find out how your images are performing with our AI powered tool today by requesting a free demo by e-mailing us at


Ruben NazarioRuben Nazario is the Vice President of Digital Shopper Innovation at Behaviorally’s new technology division, eFluence™. He has over 12 years of experience in the insights industry and is a strategic, solutions-oriented leader with a creative problem-solving approach. He has been at the forefront developing innovations to gather in-depth consumer insights with a keen interest in e-commerce and omnichannel shopping journeys. Ruben has lived in Mexico City, New York City, and now currently resides in Atlanta. Connect with him on LinkedIn.