The Center for Data Innovation spoke with Megan Copas, Director of Consumer Research at 84.51°, a Cincinnati, Ohio-based consumer research firm that uses virtual reality (VR) environments to conduct behavioral consumer research. Copas discussed the future of VR technology in business decision-making and the challenges presented by simulated environments in data collection.
Becca Trate: How is VR being implemented in the retail environment?
Megan Copas: VR is being implemented in store and display planning. We use VR for “proof of scale” testing with partners in the retail and consumer packaged goods industries. This allows partners to test multiple planogram versions, or display plans, without the cost of physically resetting multiple stores. Test group consumers can then “shop” in the virtual store. Once an option from the VR test is identified as scalable, we use the results and attitudinal survey data to make any necessary optimizations before moving to “proof of economics,” which involves testing the plan in a subset of stores and collecting point-of-sale data to gauge the impact of the selected display plan.
Retailers are also exploring virtual environments to create an e-commerce experience that mirrors in-store shopping. This approach could provide customers with the “discovery experience” they find in physical stores, potentially featuring personalized product shelves, displays of new items, or themed shelf sets for occasions like Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Years.
Trate: What insights can VR add to product testing that isn’t measurable through traditional consumer testing?
Copas: Virtual reality testing has shown a high correlation with actual in-market performance across multiple industry studies. VR places shoppers in the context of a real aisle, allowing researchers to gather information on product consideration, abandoned products, dwell time, and time spent in an aisle—metrics nearly impossible to obtain through traditional consumer testing. However, there are limitations. Since respondents don’t spend real money in the VR environment, they tend to overstate purchase behavior, though consistently across different product sets and aisle layouts.
VR testing is most effective when paired with attitudinal research. This combination helps identify the optimal planogram through VR shopping exercises, followed by traditional consumer research questioning to uncover optimization opportunities in areas like shopability and organization. This blend of attitudinal insights and VR behavioral data provides a direct link between specific behaviors and outcomes.
Trate: How is data collected, measured, and used by retailers?
Copas: We initiate every VR project by selecting the appropriate shoppers. This involves utilizing our behavioral data to include those who are genuinely engaged in the relevant category. A recent study demonstrated a significant difference between behaviorally verified respondents and self-claimed respondents. It revealed that while 75 percent of self-claimed respondents assert engagement in a category, many have no actual purchases in that category. By relying on behavioral data, we can select appropriate shoppers and create more impactful VR studies.
Participants are then invited to complete an online study, which combines traditional consumer research questions with a behavioral shopping exercise. During the behavioral shopping exercise, shoppers interact with a virtual shelf set designed to replicate a real store environment, complete with signage, price tags, and an aisle-walking experience. This data from both portions of the study gives us information on various shopper groups, their self-reported knowledge and experiences in a product category, and their actual behavior in a simulated environment.
We collect data on several aspects during this exercise: dwell time, items added or removed from carts, and items examined but not added. This data, combined with product file information, helps us analyze different levels of planogram performance across factors like sub-categories, brand, size, etc. The exercise concludes with traditional consumer research questions about their experience, allowing us to correlate behavioral shopping data with potential optimizations based on shopper feedback.
This comprehensive data is then compiled into a report outlining key performance indicators for the test shelf sets. We compare units sold and overall sales between the test planograms and current shelf sets to make informed recommendations about the most successful shelf arrangement for real store settings.
Retailers use this data as an early indicator in their testing process. It helps ensure that the changes they consider for store tests are more likely to be successful.
Trate: What are the challenges associated with implementing VR in shopping?
Copas: Conducting VR studies can be quite complex, as there are numerous aspects that are easy to overlook when planning such a study. These include selecting the appropriate variables for testing, choosing the right shoppers, aligning with retail partners, and creating realistic store environments. After data collection, the challenge lies in analyzing and interpreting the results, which involves determining a sufficiently large sample size for confident results. Since these results are created in a simulated environment, it is important to make sure they are well translated to actual environments, and that studied situations are feasible and accessible in the real world. For retailers, it is important to partner with experienced researchers who can develop studies, pinpoint appropriate shoppers, and manage transitions from virtual to real-life environments.
Trate: What is the future of VR in the retail space?
Copas: Virtual reality testing is poised to become even more adept at replicating the sensory shopping experience found in grocery stores. The field of 3D interface design and other technological areas related to the metaverse are continuously advancing. With the integration of AI and VR, online shopping experiences could soon include interactive elements such as engaging with store associates and fellow shoppers, and intelligently identifying the most appropriate shelf sets to present to customers. As technology improves, the cost of hardware is decreasing, making VR environments more affordable to create and maintain. This progress could lead to online shopping experiences that closely resemble in-store shopping, by leveraging the latest technological and analytical advancements.