Can a virtual supermarket bring realism into the consumer behavior lab?

When consumers are presented with a store in virtual reality (a simulation of an actual store), is their buying behavior similar to actual behavior in the real store? Is it more similar to the behavior in the actual store than if we were to use pictures of the store rather than going through the trouble of representing it in virtual reality? These are the questions that our recent study regarding the virtual supermarket, published in Appetite, tried to answer.

When we try to understand and predict how consumers behave in a store environment, which products they choose and why, we can go into the store and observe what consumers do. This often gives important insights (the bestseller book “Why we Buy” of Paco Underhill gives excellent examples of this). The downside is that although this type of research gives plenty of information on how consumers behave in the current environment, it is more difficult to gain information on how consumers would behave if things were different. What if we moved the candy to the front of the store? What if we changed the color of a product’s packaging? What if… Obviously it is possible to make these changes in real life and observe what happens, but this is often effortful, time consuming, and expensive to do.

This is why there is widespread use of lab experiments in research on consumer behavior. By presenting people with different store environments in the lab, we can examine their responses to different store layouts, packaging, and so on, that do not necessarily (yet) exist in real life. At the same time, lab experiments allow the researcher to control other factors (e.g., there are no disturbances caused by other shoppers) and zoom in on the factors of interest. Yet, such lab experiments have been criticized for placing people in rather artificial conditions.

Immersive virtual reality techniques to simulate a store present an exciting opportunity for research into consumer behavior, and may be a (partial) answer to this criticism. Virtual reality may bring the real world into the lab, that is, may reproduce a store environment in a more realistic way than is possible with other approaches such as presenting people with pictures. The environment can be tightly controlled by the researcher, and different versions of the store environment can be compared. For these reasons, simulating a store with virtual reality has been called “an innovative and unique research tool with great potential in the study of food choice behaviour” by Wilma Waterlander and colleagues.

Virtualsupermarket2The potential of virtual reality has inspired me to investigate, together with Eva van den Broek, Hans van Trijp, and Tian Yu, the extent to which real-life shopping behavior in a supermarket can be captured in a lab environment by using virtual reality (in comparison to using pictures). This study was done as part of the FOCOM project, using a virtual supermarket developed by Green Dino and with help of Noldus Information Technology and Essensor. The virtual supermarket is displayed using a PC with three LCD screens of 42 inch each, which results in a 180 degree field-of-view. Participants can navigate using keyboard and mouse, and they can examine an enlarged version of a product by double clicking on it.

In the study, we compare the behavior of three groups of people, recruited through the Essensor panel, who were asked to purchase milk, fruit, and biscuits in either (a) the actual physical supermarket, (b) a virtual simulation, or (c) a pictorial representation. The virtual simulation and pictorial representation were designed as exact copies of the assortments that participants would find in the real supermarket for the three product categories of interest, with the same products and display. We examine the number, variety, and type of products selected, amount of money spent, and responses to price promotions and shelf display, for the three product categories. The pictures below show the physical store and the virtual store.

The key objective of the study is to provide insight into the extent to which, for research purposes, real-life shopping behavior can be captured in the lab to a greater extent by the help of virtual reality techniques, as compared to more traditional approaches with pictures. Across the measures that were examined, two types of result patterns appear. On the one hand, there are measures for which virtual reality improves the representation of the real store in the lab (picture and physical store conditions differ, whereas virtual reality condition and physical store condition do not significantly differ), and on the other hand, there are measures for which the differences between real store and lab persist regardless of the use of virtual reality (both picture and virtual reality differ from physical store, whereas picture and virtual reality do not significantly differ).vs4

Virtual reality was shown to better represent the behavior in the physical store than the picture condition for the number of products selected and amount of money spent (for milk only), and for the selection of products from different areas of the shelf, both vertically and horizontally. This shows that virtual reality indeed brings out more realistic purchase amounts in the milk category, a category in which habits are relied upon to a great extent. Moreover, virtual reality improves responses to shelf allocation: it better represents choice behavior in the real store when it comes to the extent to which products from top shelves and from the left side of the display are chosen. This is likely due to the way the display is presented. When a product display is shown as a picture, participants view the display only as if they were standing in front of the display looking directly at it. This is not the way they are confronted with products in an actual store. There, they often first view a product display at an angle, walk towards it, and approach it from the side (as when walking through an aisle). This is mimicked in the virtual reality but not by presenting pictures.

Virtual reality was not able to diminish other differences between lab and physical store: participants bought more products and spent more money (for biscuits and fruit), bought more national brands, and responded more strongly to price promotions in both virtual reality and pictorial representations than in the physical store. These effects may be due to people feeling less restricted in their purchases (e.g., no budget restrictions) and being less distracted from the buying task (e.g., no other shoppers). This implies that when the objective of a study is to assess purchase amounts, market shares of national brands, or the size of responses to price promotions, virtual reality may not be very helpful in obtaining better estimates than lab-based approaches using pictures. This is not to say that virtual reality cannot be helpful in obtaining insightful results when it comes to comparing the effects of different types of price promotions or in-store displays. When comparing different types of promotions, virtual reality may very well be used and should be able to help identify which promotion is likely to lead to the largest consumer response. What our results suggest is that, although the identification of the most effective promotion may be unaffected, the size of the response is likely to be an overestimation of the actual consumer response in the physical store.

Future improvements can be made to virtual reality setups. For instance, participants may be better able to track their purchases when the virtual reality setup is able to better represent the movement of placing products in a shopping cart, to show the contents of the virtual shopping cart as people move along, to let participants carry a basket or push a (virtual) shopping cart which increases in weight as more products are bought, and/or to have participants go through a realistic (virtual) payment procedure. This may help reduce the difference in the number of products bought that we found. Moreover, in the future, virtual reality techniques may incorporate control devices that better resemble realistic action (e.g., grabbing of products), allow people to sense textures of products through touch, and simulate the social environment of other shoppers.

In summary, the virtual store has a lot to offer to practitioners and scholars who want to gain more insights into in-store consumer behavior using controlled lab conditions. Our study indicates that virtual reality can stimulate more habitual buying processes and ensure that responses to display characteristics (i.e., where products are located) are in line with actual behavior in a real store. Still, people are inclined to buy more in general, to buy more varied products, to buy more national brands, and to buy more products with a sales promotion when in the lab than in the real store, and this needs to be taken into account when interpreting findings from a study using virtual reality.

Erica van Herpen

About Erica van Herpen

Erica van Herpen is associate professor in consumer behavior. Her general research topic is consumer behavior at the point-of-purchase in retail settings. Topics center on (1) general store context (store layout, atmospherics, social influence), (2) on-shelf product presentation (shelf organization, product packaging, health claims), and (3) the use of novel research tools such as the virtual supermarket. In addition, Erica examines consumer food waste.

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