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Virtual Shopping, Real Results

Despite the flash-in-the-pan success of virtual reality mediums like Second Life, marketers are flocking to VR—for research purposes.

Computerized store simulations—in which consumers "shop" in on-screen environments that look very close to thee 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 ARF's Re:think conference in New York.

IRI's simulation program, which uses software from Vision Critical, presents a close approximation of the interior of a Wal-Mart 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," says 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 says. "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."

In contrast, Covkin said the range of pricing for a VR store similation runs from about $30,000 to more than $1 million.

Meanwhile, the quality of such simulations is much better than even a couple of years ago, said Raymond Burke, a marketing professor at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind. "The quality is getting so close that you couldn't tell diff between it and a photograph, except when they put people in—they can't do them that well yet," Burke says.

Burke, who has been studying VR shopping technology since early 90s, said that such environments offer the best simulation possible to real shopping, except for one area: "If the product relies on a tactile experience—like how heavy it is—it won't be that accurate."

As a tradeoff, Burke envisions a day not too far away in which VR shopping technology will redefine shopper marketing and create tenets of conventional wisdom (like, segment products on shelf by category, not brand) that will increase it's efficacy. "We could better learn how to turn demand into purchase, which is the whole point," he says.