There is a common refrain that the beauty of ecommerce is the idea of infinite shelfspace—that there can be an unlimited number of products for sale on the internet because there are no limits to the size of the shelf. This premise is one of the keys behind what makes Amazon “the everything store” and what has allowed thousands of brands to create their own websites.

This concept, however, is not all encompassing and it disregards some important nuances—a frequent mishap that occurs when technological possibilities are far ahead of their potential uses. First, there is always a shelf, it’s just now in the warehouse, not in the store, and therefore is a much cheaper shelf. Moving beyond this, let’s just say that any digital brand or retailer has nearly infinite shelf space. This, however, is a backend attribute, as it relates to supply and there are always downsides when there are no limits.

But what about the front end, as it relates to demand? In a world of infinite shelf space, the concept of “front doors”—how someone enters and discovers your product or brand—matters much more. While the shelf can be as wide and deep as one wants, the more important question is how to get people to the shelf.

In the offline world, the front door of the department store was the main entry point. The hierarchy of the store flowed from that doorway—status depended on how close or far a brand was from the main flow of traffic.

Online, there are technically infinite front doors, but a finite number of realized front doors organized in a hierarchy. For example, only so many products can fit on a brand’s homepage, even though many more times that number of SKUs could exist throughout the site. And on the homepage, those at the top are what consumers see first, automatically outranking those that require scrolling down the page.

Additionally, if Facebook and Google are the ultimate middlemen for many digital brands—meaning they need to pay these platforms money to gain traffic—the importance of digital shelf space is again superseded by realized front doors. If a brand has a lot of customers coming in off of social, each link is a front door,  but the number of potential posts from a brand and links a shopper can click remain finite. The ultimate front door for a brand or product occurs when a shopper knows what she wants and searches for it, but even then there’s a hierarchy of search results and index pages, and in most cases shoppers won’t stray far from the first few pages, if at all.  

While the number of front doors might increase over time as a brand expands its surface area and becomes more embedded in the internet via SEO, caching, reposting and the like, there will never be as many front doors as there is shelf space. At a certain point, the scale tips and abundance becomes distracting—Amazon is great if you know what you want and horrible if you don’t—which, over time, encourages a brand to move back toward higher doses of curation, thus contracting the number of front doors shoppers can access.  

The lesson in the infinite shelf space fallacy is that when things are table stakes, especially on the supply side, the battle often shifts to the demand side. Pay attention to the front door, not the back shelf.