Is Virtual the answer?

In our last blog, we talked about the growth of new technologies in shopper research. We explained how we can ensure we use new technology and traditional methodologies in the right place at the right time by judging their relevance in line with our business needs, timings and budget. This week, we would like to talk in a little more detail about one technique we are asked about a lot – Virtual Reality.

It has long been possible to build aisles, stores and even streets through a virtual platform that mimics reality. However, through clever programming and design, these platforms increasingly go beyond the basic building blocks of products and buildings, they also incorporate staff, moving shoppers and sound; creating an altogether immersive shopping experience.

This has opened up many different opportunities when it comes to shopper research, especially where generating store permissions is time consuming and difficult. Having your own virtual store is surely the answer to all of your prayers??…allowing you to research what you want, when you want!

Well, virtual reality most definitely has its place in the world of shopper insight, but it isn’t the right tool for all your business issues. Having spent the last fifteen years researching shoppers in both real and virtual stores, we want to share some of our pearls of wisdom around how and where virtual research is most appropriate for your research needs.

Diagnosing vs. Testing

Most virtual research providers will be able to provide you with some kind of statistic which demonstrates how closely virtual reality mimics real behaviours in-store. Whilst this may be true when looking at certain metrics, we believe that there is only so far a virtual platform can go when reflecting reality. There are so many factors in-store that will influence your behaviour at shelf….your mindset, your mission, whether you have children with you, the weather, how hungry and thirsty you are, the number of shoppers in the store, etc.

Whilst virtual research can do its very best to try and factor in these elements, it will never reflect complete reality. We also have to consider that shoppers are not spending real money during a virtual shopping task, and have the luxury of sitting in a lab or their own home, rather than a crowded cluttered store. We often see metrics like dwell time and number of selections being higher in the virtual environment because of these factors – shoppers don’t have the urgency or monetary restraints they may have in a real shopping scenario. For these reasons, we believe virtual reality is not the starting point for understanding how your category or store area is being shopped. To diagnose shopping behaviour, you should use a research tool that allows you to understand real behaviours in the moment.

Where virtual reality has a real benefit however, is when you come to test initiatives rather than diagnose behaviours.

You may have a new shelf layout you want to trial, or perhaps you want to see how some POS stands out in the aisle. Testing in actual stores can be a real headache. You require buy-in and permission from retailers to use their stores for trials (a challenge in itself). Significant changes need to be made to that fixture; often at great expense and time (e.g. mocking up prototype POS or relaying an entire aisle) and you are exposing what could be confidential ideas to anyone that may happen to enter those trial stores (including your competition).

When you test in virtual reality, you have the benefit of controlling the entire environment – to ensure you can completely isolate the elements you want to test (e.g. a retailer can’t add a promotion to a brand which may skew the results). It’s easy and quick to create multiple testing scenarios at the click of a button, allowing you to test concepts that may otherwise never make it past the drawing board. It also allows you to test everything against a control scenario. This means even if some behaviours are more artificial than you would see in a real store, all changes can be accurately compared to your control, which is what is important to enable you to test the true impact of the initiative you are trialling.

Quite often, it is the results of a virtual trial that convince a retail partner to trial your concepts in a test bed of their own stores – moving you one step closer to a roll out of successful ideas.

In Aisle vs Out of Aisle

The next area where you need to judge the suitability of virtual reality is against the scope of the environment you want to understand – are you looking to explore behaviour within a confined environment (i.e. within an aisle) or a more expansive environment (i.e. a total store or department shop).

We believe virtual reality has more relevance for research when you are interested in evaluating behaviours within an aisle. All respondents have to be pre-recruited for a virtual task, which becomes much easier if you can recruit them against shopping specific categories and brands. Respondents also have to be set a task – and the most suitable task for a virtual platform is to shop a category of interest. This means you only have to invest in the full virtual build of one fully shoppable aisle (your aisle), and shoppers can be dropped into the environment close to that aisle to complete their mission.

This is the quickest, most straight forward and cost effective route for virtual reality.

However, if you wanted to know how many shoppers passed and shopped a particular gondola end within a store, this would be more challenging to execute virtually. You can’t ask respondents directly to shop the gondola or category, you would have to task them to shop the entire store or section of a store and see how many of them noticed or shopped the gondola in question. This is possible virtually, but requires a more significant environment build which comes at a cost. The larger the area, the more difficult it would be to execute using an on-line virtual platform too (the file size would crash most home PC’s). It would also take much longer to field, as shoppers could in theory be shopping for 25 minutes as they are browsing a store or large area.

A quicker and more cost effective way of testing this type of issue would be some filmed or in-person observations in a real store – where you could track the actual number of shoppers who passed, shopped and purchased from the gondola end – focusing the research in this particular area, observing natural conversion to the gondola.

In summary, as with all shopper tools, there is a time and a place for using virtual reality as a platform for shopper research. The most suitable, and the area where virtual excels, is in-aisle test-based research – understanding the impact of range changes, merchandising solutions and POS communication. Virtual reality certainly opens up opportunities for different types of shopper research, but it shouldn’t be a panacea for every shopper issue we want to research.

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