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.