Virtual Shopping Shows Advances

Apr 20, 2009

By Tom Ryan

Vision reality shopping
research is increasingly being adopted by CPG companies and retailers as
an efficient way to test new products and store layouts. According to an
article in Brandweek, the acceptance is being driven by better technology;
lower prices; expanded use of brainwave and EKG measurements on consumers
to improve results; more emphasis on shopper marketing; and the growth
of broadband.

For instance, a simulation
program from Information Resources Inc. (IRI), which uses software from
Vision Critical, creates an approximation of the interior of a Wal-Mart,
a prepared foods aisle of a supermarket, and other store environments.

"We instruct respondents
to shop as they normally would and ask them which displays capture the
most attention," said Staci Covkin, IRI’s vice president of consumer
and shopper insights, recently at ARF’s Re:think conference in New York. "Because
it’s virtual, you can change things on the fly."

She said the technology
is particularly beneficial in testing new products.

"In the perfect
world, we’d be testing everything in a real store environment. However,
due to the time it takes to implement an effective test and get compliance
with retailers, the cost is enormous," Ms. Staci said.

Raymond Burke, a marketing
professor at Indiana University, predicted that vision reality shopping
technology will one day redefine shopper marketing and purchasing drivers
at the store level.

"We could better
learn how to turn demand into purchase, which is the whole point," he

Virtual shopping has
some limitations, according to Prof. Burke. For instance, measuring demand
would be difficult for any product that "relies on a tactile experience," such
as its weight. But the quality of shopping simulations has improved significantly
over the last few years.

"The quality is
getting so close that you couldn’t tell [the difference] between it and
a photograph, except when they put people in – they can’t do them that well
yet," Prof.
Burke said.

Discussion Question:
What are the merits as well as the limitations of virtual shopping research
methods versus in-store research? When will virtual shopping drive product
testing and store layout decisions in the future? For what purposes will
in-store testing still be required?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.

Join the Discussion!

10 Comments on "Virtual Shopping Shows Advances"

Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Ryan Mathews
13 years 1 month ago

Real purchase triggers–especially real incremental purchase triggers–rely heavily on sensory experience. True, if you have a memory of that experience you don’t need the real thing so virtual shopping probably works best measuring responses to know products.

Dr. Stephen Needel
13 years 1 month ago

We’ve been doing virtual reality shopping for the past 16 years (one of the first to use this technology) with great success for our clients. The advantages are cost, speed, and flexibility–we can test pricing, packaging, in-store promotions, shelf layouts and assortments, and new products quickly and cheaply.

This has always been an inexpensive technology–a typical study runs in the $50,000s and we’ve repeatedly shown that our methodology produces validated results.

We see the limitations on two levels. As Dr. Burke notes, a product category that relies on touch, taste, or smell as a purchase-decision driver is not well suited to virtual reality. We have also found that expensive luxury goods are sometimes not a good candidate for virtual reality. There is a difference between virtually spending $200 for a digital camera and really spending $200.

For packaged goods, where most of our business lies, neither of these is usually an issue.

Dan Raftery
13 years 1 month ago

Technology improvements should continue to make this research increasingly useful. However, it only measures one of the sensory channels of communication. Dr. Joann Peck at the University of Wisconsin has published some very interesting research on the importance of the tactile portion of the shopping experience. I’m sure there are other insightful studies about how the other senses affect in-store behavior too. As a component of the entire shopping experience, I hope to see this technique add important intel to the consumer knowledge base.

Raymond D. Jones
Raymond D. Jones
13 years 1 month ago

Virtual shopping is fast becoming a key tool for evaluating alternative merchandising techniques. However, it is only one of a set of tools for gauging shopper response.

The trick to effective shopper research is in establishing or creating the context of the shopping experience. To some extent, the physical experience can be simulated in a virtual environment. However, if the shopper has to be in context, such as a particular need state, virtual shopping has limitations.

For example, we have conducted several studies of impulse buying of beverages from coolers in the grocery store. Simulations of this behavior are difficult since the behavior is often driven by hunger, thirst, or presence of children.

The point is that no methodology is a silver bullet and that, while simulations can certainly provide guidance, the context of real store situations is still ideal.

Len Lewis
Len Lewis
13 years 1 month ago

I believe that P&G has also been testing this concept for some time. It’s very interesting but I agree, it has its limitations. Ryan mentioned the sensory experience. I believe that’s hitting it on the head whether it’s food apparel or electronics.

I’m a great believer in advancement in online shopping and new technology, but people will always want to play touchy-feely with the goods.

Lee Peterson
13 years 1 month ago
First, let me say that Ray Burke is awesome–his retail school at I.U. is unparalleled and he really “gets” it when it comes to retail ops. Then, I’d have to say I only half agree with him on this. While it’s true that VR studies can gain a lot of solid insight, esp. from a quantitative POV, it’s still only half the battle. As we know from the slow growing e-commerce paradigm, people not only love the tactile retail experience, they also act differently when surrounded by the full-on stimuli of “real” retail. There’s still much that cannot be duplicated in terms of the 5 senses with VR, and probably never will. However, some of that can be assuaged with the use of a mock-up facility, like Pepsico has in Dallas (grocery store mock-up). If you can use the VR for quantity and a mock up for quality, THEN, you’ve really got something. Although, even then, IMHO, there is no substitute for a live test. The cash register will always be the final proof.
Camille P. Schuster, Ph.D.
13 years 1 month ago

One neuroscience researcher has found that participation in virtual reality interaction is more like the real experience than video conferencing. An interesting experiment would be to create an environment that is as much like a real environment as possible, match consumers, have half participate in the virtual environment and half participate in the real environment and evaluate responses.

Anne Bieler
Anne Bieler
13 years 1 month ago

Virtual shopping can provide very valuable information for marketers. Assessing consumer response to shelf sets and display merchandising can provide new kinds of data regarding shelf impact, interest, and more. It is a most valuable screening tool when considering new store layouts, different merchandising schemes, placement, and new packaging comparisons.

A number of companies have used these tools to help rationalize SKUs and selection, as well as test a variety of planograms–providing clear direction for next steps. But the shopper purchase decision reflects the in-store experience. Holding the package provides a connection that can trigger emotions about using the product, opening the package, storing it at home, the way it may look on a counter or fit in the fridge–all part of the shopper value equation. Retail experience centers will help develop more of the learning needed here, but useful shopper insights require comprehensive development.

Joan Treistman
13 years 1 month ago

I agree with Ray Jones. Context is always a crucial framework for research, especially when it is related to visual communications.

I’d like to add some perspective to the point of virtual shopping as another tool in the tool box. I didn’t notice any of the discussions referring to answering the important question “why.” If our research does not uncover why something occurs, we have not done enough.

The client may consider the results satisfactory when there is a “winner.” But what happens when there isn’t? We need to know why so that modifications can be made and future strategies will be successful.

When it comes to marketing research, especially in-store, packaging, advertising, website optimization, there are three critical questions the research must address: What? So what? And Now what?

That’s my mantra and I am happy to share it with you.

Christi Walters
Christi Walters
12 years 10 months ago
With respect to the limitations of in-store research and virtual shopping, mock-shops and in-store research give us greater latitude to probe qualitatively to truly understand what consumers are thinking. Virtual shopping, on the other hand, provides the confidence of having a much larger nationally representative sample size and is deliberately supported by an analytic engine. Extracting the data is a significant component of the VS research process. Quantitatively speaking, virtual platforms capture every interaction shoppers have with the environment and products. Interactions can then be compared across merchandising elements and products to better understand how each will perform in-market. Calculating a conversion rate can determine if, and how likely, a product will convert into purchase. With virtual shopping, heat mapping also allows companies to gain a quantitative understanding of where consumers are shopping on the shelf. Besides a visual understanding of “hot spots,” properly analyzing heat maps is valuable in helping companies optimize product placement. Heat maps uncover shopping patterns, which are used to directly impact merchandising solutions. Understanding shopping patterns can also lead to… Read more »

Take Our Instant Poll

When will virtual shopping largely drive store layout decisions?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...