Computer-driven 3D virtual shop research is becoming increasingly common amongst retailers and consumer product manufacturers. Done properly, the tests can deliver a highly accurate representation of behaviour when consumers are faced with products on the shelf, as they would be in a real-life scenario. For researchers, the technique offers the chance to get results more quickly and at a much lower cost than real store field tests.
What is 3D Virtual Shop Research?
3D virtual shop research, also called virtual store research, involves a virtual reality environment that mimics a real store. A research subject is taken through the virtual environment to test and measure an array of research topics, such as shelf layouts, signage variations, packaging research, brand-blocking strategies, point-of-sale materials, and price changes. The goal is to simulate a life like experience that can be used to run research experiments on subjects without the cost and logistics of a physical environment.
While it’s true that the startup cost for building a simulation (especially on the more elaborate end) as well as establishing the internal capabilities needed to work with it may be significant, virtual store simulators offer a wide variety of benefits to the market researcher and once a company has created their ‘virtual aisle,’ they can reuse it in future projects for a much lower cost. The quality of the research is generally very high; participants answer questions based on realistic shelf displays instead of fake-looking cobbled together displays or hypothetically survey questions.
Applications of 3D Virtual Shop Research
Where can 3D virtual shops be used? In one case, the researchers at Play MR recreated an entire aisle from a large format supermarket (with more than 500 products) for a client selling snack foods. They have released a case study video showing the power of this kind of simulation.
3D research need not always be as complex and involved, of course. It can even be used for online surveys. This works by creating a ‘shelf set’ which is shown to the respondent after a ‘fly in’ video that helps recreate the experience of visiting the store and going to a particular aisle. There may be sounds, other shoppers, and signage adding realism.
Once they’ve arrived at the shelf, the respondent can take products from the shelf, examine them more closely, zoom in on side and back panels, and place them in their shopping cart before heading to the checkout stand.
From the perspective of the researcher, this answers valuable questions like:
– Which products drew their attention initially, and how long did they consider them?
– Which products did they pick off the shelf?
– How long did it take them to read the label and make a purchase decision?
Using these basic data points marketers can then evaluate variables such as the ‘shelf impact’ of a given product, how shelf positioning affects market share, what the optimal price is to generate maximum profit or highest market share, or even what the estimated sales volume will be of a given package.
When to use 3D research
3D virtual shopping research can be used at nearly any point of new product development, from initial brainstorming to market evaluation, product design, prototyping, testing, and finally the launch. Especially if it is implemented early on, it can significantly improve the success of a launch.
It’s true that in-store tests remain the gold standard for gathering data on consumer behaviour, and it’s unlikely to lose that position any time soon. Nevertheless in-store tests are time consuming and expensive, and store owners and shoppers alike frequently complain they are intrusive.
With virtual shop research it’s possible to conduct tests early and often in a confidential environment where competitors have no way to learn of new designs. The technology can test multiple scenarios and ideas at the same time, allowing researchers to make changes ‘on the go’ and without the lead times of creating actual new product packaging.
Virtual simulations also give researchers far more control. There is no concern about the weather, competitive activity, out of stock situations, or the many other variables that affect real-world tests. Without the uncontrolled variables, retailer reticence, and expenses of physical tests, simulations can provide data that is nearly impossible to get otherwise.
Finally, 3D virtual shop research can be a powerful tool when negotiating with retailers. Pre-testing in a virtual environment allows the company to show their retailers how the new products will succeed, giving them leverage to negotiate greater space on the shelves. Key to obtaining reliable data in this regard is a quality simulation — rather than using fake or dated looking shelves, the simulation must be realistic to the customer and the researcher must be able to show the collected data actually corresponds with in-store sales.
Alex Pejak is an economist currently working on a few projects in Australia. She is interested in topics related to market research and project management.