Virtual Shopping; It is not what you think it is.

By: Lindsey Mattos

As life in general starts to take on a more virtual persona, so does the “behind the scenes” world of your everyday actions. Humans are being tracked, watched, studied, researched, and used as data collection resources without even knowing it. The marketing research world largely contributes to turning us into walking research subjects, sometimes with and sometimes without our consent.

One research tool that some companies have been dabbling in as early as the 1980’s is called Virtual Store Simulation (VSS), or “Virtual Shopping”. Some of you may be saying; “Virtual Shopping? I do that everyday!” It is not exactly what you think it is. Virtual Simulation is technology that is used to put consumers (volunteers!) in what- at its best- can be a fully immersive 3-D shopping environment. Then a team of researchers or “Practitioners” will draw qualitative and quantitative data from the subjects experience to use as part of their consumer research.

In all seriousness, Virtual Research, although costly initially can be very useful for companies. Unlike other marketing research tools, VSS can deliver behavioral data as well as corresponding attidudinal insight without a team having to physically go into stores and collect it. Companies can test realistic scenarios of merchandising, product promotion, and design layouts with an array of tools ranging from basic two-dimensional and video based shelf simulations in small scale environments, all the way up to a full store 3-D simulation with site- specific interactions on large screens.

During these simulations, a consumer may walk into a virtual store, push around a carriage, pick up and item off the virtual shelf, look at it front and back, and then decide whether or not to purchase it. Some companies such as Kellogg Co., use the shelf simulations to test new designs for packaging. They want to see if the design will grab the consumers attention or not. Using VSS has allowed them to gather this information and help them decide if the new design would confuse shoppers or grab their attention.

Now you are probably asking yourself; what are the benefits of all this?! Especially since VSS is pricey?! There are many benefits actually. Although initial costs for set up can range from $10,000 to $20,000, it turns out to be far less expensive than other market tests. Virtual Shopper testing is also faster than traditional, which allows the product to hit the shelves quicker. Researchers are also able to completely control the environment, unlike in field testing scenarios. But like any other great idea, VSS does have some potential obstacles. One main issue is that of validity. Although most practitioners firmly believe that virtual store simulations mirror reality, there simply has not been enough users yet to draw any conclusions.

As a consumer, this research tool can actually be pretty effective. Figuring out what will draw in my attention, or make me like something before I even know I will like it, is a pretty cool concept. As more and more companies start to hear about the benefits of implementing Virtual Store Simulations and start adopting this method of research, then the price might drop and this tool will become a staple at every large product company out there. I feel if companies do not take on this new method in the near future, their products will have an unfair advantage to those who do.


15 thoughts on “Virtual Shopping; It is not what you think it is.

  1. Domenica Fuller April 10, 2015 / 7:00 pm

    What I like about this concept is that it does not seem like it is too invasive. The people participating in this virtual shopping are volunteers and are aware of the fact that the company is using their information to research what consumers similar to them will want. It is important for companies to take advantage of technology like this because trends are constantly changing. Once a company develops something to keep up with a market leader, people might be on to the new thing. Companies have to be a step ahead of us and predict what innovation will come up next. I agree with you Lindsey, companies that use this technology have a clear advantage over those that do not because of the amount of consumer knowledge they have collected besides normal sales information.


  2. Mattia Lanzi April 17, 2015 / 2:11 am

    I also agree with Domenica. I think it is not a very invasive way from companies to research and get information about your taste. Thanks to the technology that we can use today, i think this is a very good way for business to improve their sales. Companies have to make prediction to be the best on the market and i think this is a good way to be one step forward from the others.


  3. Linsey Walker April 23, 2015 / 6:33 pm

    I think this tool could be useful for larger companies with money to spend on this expensive technology. The example given in the article, of being able to use virtual store simulation to test packaging to see if it stands out on shelves, is a good one– instead of printing a bunch of samples and having to actually go to stores, having a digital display of what the product looks like on the shelf saves time and resources, while still allowing the company to get the information they are looking for. Due to the fact that it’s a significant investment, I think this would be best for larger companies with a range of products, so that the price of the VSS could be spread across the different products and be worth the investment.


  4. Kendra Van Pelt April 26, 2015 / 5:19 pm

    Virtual store stimulation seems like a very interesting concept and I personally see it becoming a staple in market research in the future. As far as I understand the concept of virtual store stimulation, this is done complete done away from any store and is completely volunteer based. I think this is actually a great future market research tactic – in my opinion, it seems a lot less invasive then other marketing research tactics. Some recent things have come up about GPS tracking, store cameras tracking consumer movements throughout the store, etc. By having actual volunteers participate in this, I this is so much better than the options averrable to researchers right now – options that I think border on crossing over civil rights, or could potentially with future laws passed. I think virtual store stimulation is also a great resource for companies as well and is something a see as a staple in market research in the future. Although there is a large up front cost, the benefits will reap in later for many companies.


  5. Billy Muldoon April 27, 2015 / 9:03 pm

    This concept of Virtual store simulation is something that I am very aware of. Earlier in the year when I was looking to buy a new pair of glasses, I decided to go through a company called This website also happens to have an iPhone app with a feature called “Virtual Try-On” in which the user can take a 3-D photo of their whole head, and can then see what each pair of glasses will look like on them before they purchase them. Buying prescription glasses through on-line retailers has become a new concept, with many people hesitant to use because they do not know if the glasses will fit their face. However, with this new feature’s customers will no longer have to worry if the glasses will for or not. I was hesitant at first when I used the service, but was completely satisfied with my purchase once they came in the mail. They looked and fit just like they did on the app. VSS can help consumers know what they are buying before they actually purchase it, giving them more confidence in their purchases.


  6. Ryan Etter April 27, 2015 / 9:15 pm

    I think this is a cool idea and will definitely be a smajor step forward to online purchasing. Now I’m not sure how expensive this new technology will be including the in store sales but if it becomes a hot new thing it think it will pay off.


  7. Mackenzie Kilmartin April 28, 2015 / 12:07 am

    I can understand how readers and consumers see VSS as an invasion of privacy and unnecessary, I think that because it benefits to companies and helps inform them on perspective buyers, it is worth it in the end. I do not think VSS harms online users in any way. It may have some spam and cause a few popups here and there, but overall if our likes and dislikes are being tracked virtually, to our benefit, I believe it will be worth it.


  8. Andrew Arcidi April 28, 2015 / 12:15 am

    I think this concept is really cool especially to draw in consumers. If the company has the money to spend on this I think it would be wise to do so in the future because of how different and advanced it is compared to other technology out there. As long as the volunteers know what information is getting stored, i do not believe it is too invasive.


  9. Patrick Breslin April 28, 2015 / 5:07 am

    This concept is a great option for companies that can afford it. It allows consumers to decide whether they want to purchase a product before they do right from the comfort of their home. I think this idea will become larger among many retail store websites and kiosks. I don’t personally believe this is a big invasion of privacy and don’t agree with those who are fussing about this information being recorded. I feel none of the information is very personal and crucial to be concealed.


  10. William Cavalier April 28, 2015 / 4:08 pm

    I think this a great new way for companies to gather research on their customers and is very beneficial for companies that can afford it. Since our world is involving more of the internet in everyday life people are more into online shopping because it is more convenient. People will shop online because its a lot easier than going into the stores. Since this virtual simulation is becoming a thing only companies putting the effort into using it will gain a profit. Companies that use this system will have advantages over other companies.


  11. Charlie O'Connor May 5, 2015 / 4:51 am

    Very interesting Lindsey! I feel like companies in the food and beverage industry could be the biggest beneficiaries of this type of research, in terms of shelf placement as they would be able to gain evidence of where shopper’s eyes go first and how much that influences what they buy. Planograms are a huge part of ‘in store’ marketing for beverage companies, working at Polar Beverages, we wanted to have the most facings at eye level for most products and lower facings for the children’s products like “aquaball” or a juice product we distribute. I would love to be a volunteer in one of these experiments!


    • Lindsey Mattos May 7, 2015 / 9:33 pm

      Hi Charlie! That is awesome to hear that this would be beneficial for companies to use as part of their market research. I wonder how Polar gets those ideal “eye level” spots in stores, as I would assume other companies would also want those shelf spaces. I would also want to volunteer for these experiments. Especially in the cave!


  12. Xiaolong Yang May 7, 2015 / 6:40 pm

    Virtual shopping is a really cool idea. It can display an almost unlimited variety of products, styles, flavors, and sizes in response to the expressed needs and desires of consumers. Marketers can sit down with customers at the computer and collaborate on the design of new products and marketing programs. Merchandise can be shown in a variety of entertaining and informative contexts, including, perhaps, a model of the consumer’s home. Home shopping is already a reality. One day, the virtual store may become a channel for direct, personal, and intelligent communication with the consumer, one that encompasses research, sales, and service. I think it will be a trend for future shopping!


  13. Nick Pappalardo May 12, 2015 / 7:01 pm

    I like the idea of virtual shopping, but it baffles me how they can get accurate data from it. At the end of the day it not real life and is in fact more of a video game. I feel as though the people who “play” these virtual shopping programs could easily manipulate their own shopping habits because they are online and not in person. I like this idea but just as everything online, it is not always accurate.


  14. Megan Lac April 19, 2016 / 11:45 pm

    I’m very interested to see how this plays out. As someone who used to work in merchandising I always look at how stores are set up when I walk into them and how the shelves are set. It’s cool to think that companies would be able to test different set ups for ideal sales virtually than having someone such as myself set up a test shelf. The future of merchandising is truly here.


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