Virtual Shopping, Real Results


NEW YORK Despite the flash-in-the-pan success of online worlds like Second Life, marketers are flocking to virtual reality -- for research purposes.

Computerized store simulations -- in which consumers “shop” in on-screen environments that look very close to the real thing -- are now standard for the larger packaged-goods firms like Procter & Gamble, Frito-Lay, ConAgra and Intel, which have been using them for years.

But now there are several factors speeding the adoption of VR shopping research among other, smaller players, including better technology, lower prices, the expanded use of brainwave and EKG measurements on consumers to hone results, more emphasis on shopper marketing and the ubiquity of broadband.

While firms like P&G tend to do such simulations in-house, IRI, the Chicago-based market research firm, began offering the program to clients about a year or so ago. Earlier this month, Staci Covkin, vp, consumer and shopper insights at IRI, gave a presentation on the subject at the Advertising Research Foundation’s Re:think conference in New York.

Walmart's simulation program (shown above), which uses software from Vision Critical, presents a close approximation of the interior of a Walmart as well as the prepared foods aisle of a supermarket, among other locales. IRI taps its base of 60,000 or so consumers to virtually shop such locales to see what pops on shelf and what doesn’t.

“We instruct respondents to shop as they normally would and ask them which displays capture the most attention,” said Covkin. “Because it’s virtual, you can change things on the fly.”

Testing new products in a real store environment would be too expensive and time consuming, Covkin said. “In the perfect world, we’d be testing everything in a real store environment,” Covkin said. “However, due to the time it takes to implement an effective test and get compliance with retailers, the cost is enormous.”

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