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Last month, Matt Kleinschmit wrote a blog that covered an overview of virtual shopping technology. In today's blog I'm going to provide a quick history lesson on how virtual shopping has evolved from its inception through today.

The concept of virtual shopping really came into being when Professor Raymond Burke, E.W. Kelley professor of business administration at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, began working with simulated environments in the late 1980's. In those days, virtual testing employed large-scale video - in many ways the size of an actual aisle in a store to mimic walking through an actual store; however, the collection of data was still done via interview or paper-based surveys. As computer technology progressed, so did the level of complexity with virtually simulated environments. Technological advances also allowed for the collection of significantly more data without interrupting the participant to ask questions via more integrated programming and software sophistication.

Since then, many companies have been experimenting with computer simulation. These include industry icons like P&G, Unilever, PepsiCo, Intel and Kraft - organizations that felt 3D computer graphics would change the way innovation and strategy are approached and executed. In more recent history, both manufacturers and retailers alike have experimented with the development of specialized standalone facilities with fully immersive 3D virtual testing equipment to be able to continually test new retail environments, in-store marketing materials and category arrangements.

However, a trip down the evolutionary path of virtual shopping reveals three major milestones that really brought us to the present day. The milestones also represented significant benefits both to the participant and the user of the research.

  • From Flat Images to 3D Modeling: Early simulated environments were created with actual video footage that required significant computer power to display and control. In more recent times, technological advances including the advent of computer gaming and real time video rendering have allowed virtual reality to really take flight. Products, objects, lighting, etc. look almost like real-life with incredible depth and texture. 3D modeling provides true interactivity, allowing participants to demonstrate behavior just like in a real 'space', which allows for the collection of a vast array of behavioral data (e.g. time spent shopping, items looked-at, etc.) not just 'what' was purchased.
  • From Super Computer to Notebook: Historically, virtual simulation was so computationally intensive that it could only be handled by advanced high-powered computers, which severely limited the number of CPG manufacturers that could utilize the technology. Today, virtual environments are available locally - right on your computer. Internet technology (HTML), Flash, Java and other advanced program languages make the creation and deployment of virtual environments practically ubiquitous. The obvious benefits is that the environments are not only easier to create but they can be deployed anywhere, at the participant's convenience (not the researcher's).
  • From Central Location Testing (CLT) to Online: Some would argue that face-to-face research is superior; however, still others would argue that larger sample sizes derive the greatest confidence and quantitative rigor. Thankfully, virtual technology allows for both. When virtual environments needed vast computing power and large spaces to house the expensive equipment, testing was limited to central location. While CLT provided an opportunity to 'hear' the consumer, today's online methods provide significant opportunity to reach large, nationally representative samples of consumers (including key segments of interest) and still 'hear' what they are saying plus 'see' what they're doing, because we have the ability to program surveys query consumers based on their behavior at shelf in the virtual environment.

Today's Virtual Shopping Functionality
Current virtual shopping technology works much like online shopping interfaces except that respondents are presented product options on a simulated, interactive shelf that mimics the same section in a real-life store. Respondents simply scan the shelf by navigating with their mouse to see the products. Products can be picked up, turned over, placed in the shopping basket or returned to the shelf. Even products initially selected for purchase can be returned to shelf, with the final stage involving the respondent check-out (purchasing the items). A key benefit of virtual shopping is that all of the event-based behavioral data is collected during the exercise and in some cases subsequent survey questions can be linked to shopping behavior to further exploration shopper attitudes and motivations. Below is an example of one of Vision Critical's virtual shopping interfaces:

A brief history of virtual testing

Validation and Next-Generation Applications
As with any new technology, there are barriers to acceptance: fear, confusion and complacency - to name a few. However, the vanguards of the movement have transformed the use of virtual environments from a fad for curiosity into a tool for proactive, ongoing brand and category management. In fact, real world validation is well documented and 'best practices' are being developed and adopted. Some examples of recent validation include: projection of volumes from virtual shopping data that are in line with syndicated data after the test, planogram optimization and real world sales increases, package testing leading to increased consumer acceptance, etc.

The reality of virtual is that it no longer remains the stuff of science fiction but is a real and present tool for marketers and researchers. Risk-takers and innovators took and expanded on the fact that behavioral data (what people do) is much better than articulated data (what people say) to create a platform for insights generation that leaves old-school paper surveys in the trash can. As technology and comfort with virtual testing expands, the applications will only increase, with the only limits being the creativity and ingenuity of marketers and their counterparts in consumer and shopper insights.

In future blogs, we will cover some of the more traditional and emerging uses of virtual technology and provide real-world examples of how virtual shopping is being utilized.

Read more about Virtual Research here.

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