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The Third Shelf

Posted June 14, 2012
Posted in Behavioral Marketing, Marketing, Mobile Marketing, Shopper Marketing, Store Experience, Technology, The Future, Trends, Uncategorized

By Doug Stephens

There have always been two “shelves” in retail. The first can be found in the retail store and is where the product is most often evaluated and ultimately purchased. The second shelf is in the consumer’s home and is where trial usage takes place and with any luck, loyalty and advocacy built.  For the last several centuries, marketers have spent all of their time, money and energy understanding how consumers behave in front of these two shelves.

However, there is now a third shelf that marketers need to get their heads around quickly.  The third shelf is the precise place, moment or opportunity, outside of the store or the home, where the consumer can consider, interact with or even buy your products.  It’s now up to marketers to decide where this shelf (be it physical or virtual) is to be built for their products.  Interactive media and mobile technology is giving brands third-shelf opportunities almost anywhere and everywhere they choose to put them.

For the high-end sunglass manufacturer, the third shelf might take the form of an augmented reality store where beachgoers can virtually try on and order sunglasses using their mobile device and have them delivered directly to them at the beach – where they need them most.  For a sandwich shop it might be an interactive menu conveniently placed at a commuter train station, enabling customers to text their lunch order on their way to work – when they’re thinking about it.  There is no limit to where the third shelf can be and in a sense that’s the challenge.

The ideal third shelf location can only be found by meticulously mapping the consumer’s path through the world. It’s a matter of understanding the precise moments or circumstances that your products are either consciously or unconsciously considered, needed or desired.  For example, there are plenty of places that parents with toddlers think about their need for diapers besides the store shelf or at their home.  It’s up to marketers to figure out where those places might be and decide how best to build a third shelf there.  In the process, you may even find that your product is abundantly more desirable and relevant on the third shelf than it is within the context of a store.

The time has come for all brands to claim their space on the third shelf – wherever that might be.  In the new era of consumerism, the world is your store.


  • Greg Hickman  says:


    Love this concept! I just spoke about this slightly in a small marketer panel. I talked about how historically consumers went from A to B, which suggests that there is a void between the two end points. Now, with mobile devices, it’s more A THROUGH B. Our conversations never end…they continue as we’re between A and B. Work continues by answering emails or conference calls. We document our journey with facebook, instagram or path etc.

    For brands, it’s very important to think about what consumers are doing between A and B as now more than ever, that “in between” phase is more important than both the original and final destinations.

    That “through” stage is where they need to find opportunities to put the “third shelf”.

    Great post!

  • Ashish Bhasin  says:


    your article profoundly bridges the gap with the 3rd shelf “missing link ‘ for the developed and emerging markets but i have just two nagging thoughts- how do you see the third shelf dynamics playing up in not so mature markets like africa or other 3rd world ? and what should be the strategy in play in wake of limited resources at disposal in such markets ?


    • Doug Stephens

      Doug Stephens  says:

      Hi Ashish,
      The reason I believe we (in developed markets) are evolving these “third shelf” sorts of experiences, is in large part because simple distribution of products has become academic. Distribution to market – which only 50 years ago, was difficult – even in North America, is now taken for granted. And with internet infrastructure and mobile adoption being what it is, we are now in a position to push toward more contextual (anytime/anywhere commerce).

      The same cannot be said in many emerging markets. In many parts of Africa, parts of South America etc., even simple conventional distribution of products is a challenge. And with limited internet penetration and minimal smartphone adoption, “third shelf” sorts of buying opportunities would be out of the question at this point.

      However, I also believe that as more delivery and online infrastructure is built, smartphone adoption improves with cheaper devices and middle-class economies grow, the likelihood of emerging markets leap-frogging developed nations in their level of mobile commerce is huge because they’ve become so adapted to using the mobile device as the primary computer.


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