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As we have seen in prior blog posts, Virtual Shopping has evolved in both complexity and adoption. Already we are seeing advancements in the ability to deliver even more realistic virtual simulations via online studies, as well as the integration of virtual stimulus with other complementary technologies such as biometrics, neuroscience and facial recognition which, when executed together, can provide unprecedented understanding of how both human emotions and behavior intersect at the retail shelf.

One area that holds significant promise in virtual testing is the integration of advanced Smart Phone Augmented Reality applications with immersive virtual stimulus. Whereas Virtual Reality is the exercise of creating realistic environments in a virtual setting, Augmented Reality is a live, direct or indirect, view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are augmented by computer-generated sensory input such as sound, video, graphics or GPS data. Now we can expose shoppers and respondents to "what ifÛ scenarios while they're in-situation, effectively merging real-life, augmented and virtual environments together to achieve specific research objectives. By changing or "augmentingÛ a shopper's reality, researchers can expose them to situations while they are in shopper mode, in a real store, and see what effect this has on their behavior.

Vision Critical is currently exploring this technology for a variety of research applications, including package testing. In this setting, respondents would use their smart phone to scan over a specific product in store, which would trigger the application to start a short mobile-based survey that tests alternative packaging designs while the shopper is still at shelf and in-store, gathering data on their reactions to the new packaging and subsequently reporting findings in real time to incent and encourage future respondent participation. Below is an example of how this could work:

Similar applications of this technology could include testing of alternative in-store signage and point-of-sale materials, much like the packaging example above, followed by shopping exercises to help understand the impact of such scenarios on purchase, volume, trial and switching behavior.

Integration of augmented reality research with GPS-enabled location-based services will also gain prominence as a research tool in the near future, allowing both manufacturers and retailers alike to test new products, category arrangements and in-store marketing materials, and extending into adjacent industries such as hospitality, sporting and entertainment venues where consumer touch points are typically not maximized to their fullest potential. Longer term, augmented reality and image recognition technologies may help marketers to capture and quantify brand touchpoints throughout consumers' daily lives. This holds promise in reinventing brand health tracking initiatives, replacing brand recall with actual tracking of exposure (including location) and truly understanding both the incremental and cumulative value of brand interactions on favorability, health and purchase. Similarly, this type of application could also replace consumption / purchase diaries and product scanning methods, allowing consumers to simply photograph products they purchase or consume in a day, or capture an image of their pantry, versus the manual nature of the traditional diary and inventory data collection methods.

There are also a number of other emerging technologies and research methods that when combined with virtual testing could yield powerful insights for both manufacturers and retailers alike. One such method is the integration of ongoing virtual testing with a proprietary community panel comprised of key high value consumers. This 'Virtual Shopping Panel' would ask members to record their purchase behaviors via mobile QR / Barcode scanning, while at the same time completing ongoing virtual shopping exercises in which they are exposed to a wide variety of potential product, pricing, portfolio and merchandising scenarios. Over time, this scalable research platform could provide ongoing, incremental learning about how consumers will react to potential category, product, portfolio, shelving, pricing and POS changes; with dynamic predictive modeling and associated deliverables graphically displaying the impact of all possible category changes on revenue, volume, reach and shopability. No longer would virtual testing be limited to only a few test scenarios under consideration ÛÒ over time all possible category scenarios would be exposed to shoppers and evaluated.

This concludes our series on the past, present, and future of Virtual Shopping. As you've read, the technology and uses are constantly evolving ÛÒ we firmly believe brands and Retailers must also continue to evolve and bring technology into their research protocols in order to meet consumers on their term and maximize insights.

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