Screening their customers

Virtual reality is hitting the British high street as Visionary Shopper transforms the way in which supermarkets study their customers. By Virginia Matthews

SBHD: Virtual reality is hitting the British high street as Visionary Shopper transforms the way in which supermarkets study their customers. By Virginia Matthews

It’s been described as a “computer game for retailers”, but its benefits skew more towards the consumer. Its present application is as a hi-tech market research tool, but its real heart is in home shopping. Visionary Shopper, produced by Atlanta, Georgia-based Simulation Research, is a computer software system that applies virtual reality technology to the humdrum business of buying soap powder, soup and so on.

Visionary Shopper was developed by an associate professor of marketing at the Harvard Business School. It allows a manufacturer or retailer to accurately duplicate the shopping experience, without the expense of using a real store.

At its most basic, it allows firms to test consumer reactions to changes in a product’s packaging, new colours and recipes, price promotions and new product concepts before they commit themselves to a full-scale test.

Rather than using traditional market research methods, Simulation Research president and a former Nielsen man Dr Stephen Needel says it establishes “what a shopper says he or she will do” next time they go shopping. The virtual reality system – costing about £30,000 for a basic test – records what shoppers do when faced with an empty trolley.

For the guinea pigs, Visionary Shopper is like no other market research system in use in Britain. Rather than answering questions, or responding to one-dimensional illustrations or texts, the consumer “shops” on a computer.

The “shopper” sits in front of a screen showing store sections of either Sainsbury’s, Tesco or Safeway loaded with computer images of genuine, three-dimensional products. With the help of a trackball, they “travel” up and down retail aisles, zooming in and out of any shelf that takes their eye.

With each session timed to last half-an-hour, shoppers are free to examine carefully their chosen products, which are all clearly priced. The product can then be turned a full 360 degrees to give a detailed examination of its ingredients or usage information at the touch of a button.

By touching an on-screen magnifying glass, the product’s text can be enlarged to suit variations in different users’ eyesights.

Once chosen, the product need only be lightly touched on-screen to make it disappear into a three-dimensional shopping trolley or “virtual shopping cart”. This is conveniently parked near the “exit” sign to the store and can be emptied and reloaded as often as the shopper wants.

Before the session begins, though, the shopper is given a few minutes instruction on how to use the system. In US tests, involving 15,000 people, only two have so far failed to master its use.

In the US, the system is about to be extended to a 4,000 cable-based home shopping trial in Orlando, Florida. For the first time, grocery shoppers will be able to examine breakfast cereals or toothpaste in the way they expect to examine jewellery or clothes on-screen before purchasing them.

“Home shopping is very well advanced in the US, but the home shopping channels do little to make food or household shopping interesting. Rather than being supplied with just an on-screen list of items, including pack size and price, the Visionary Shopper system allows `shoppers’ to take a closer look at everyday products, just as they would in a real store,” says Needel.

In Britain, where cable penetration is still light – (it has more than 70 per cent penetration in the US) Needel and his team have their sights on a market research application for Visionary Shopper, rather than a full-scale home shopping test.

When we met last week, Needel was close to signing a UK licence deal with one of the country’s top ten market research firms. It already has licensees throughout the developed world – with the exception of Japan.

So what are its benefits to marketers? Well, what visionary shoppers don’t see are the large, discreetly-placed computers that record minute details of their shopping “trips”.

Needel says: “We feed back to clients precise data on which products were picked out for further examination, how long consumers spent examining their labels and which products were chosen for the trolley.

“We can monitor how long a person spent looking at the price or price promotion and evaluate how their ultimate purchasing decisions were affected by subtle changes – often by the line-up of the products,” he says.

Judging how well consumers will respond to price increases on a favourite product before switching brands is a fundamental part of the Visionary Shopper service.

But Needel says it can do more: “We have discovered in the US that in some categories, there is simply too much choice and that consumers are confused by shelves groaning under the weight of `me-toos’. The realisation that too much choice can be as bad as too little is being taken very seriously by manufacturers over there.

“Visionary Shopper can also help retailers determine which products are pulling their weight and which could be removed without upsetting the consumer; vital data when shelf space is at a premium,” says Needel.

Much of Simulation Res-earch’s time is spent on validating its findings. “It’s important that we ascertain that Visionary Shoppers are behaving just like real shoppers do, so we carefully check our own shoppers’ choices against the figures for established brand leaders, for example,” adds Needel.

That doesn’t stop the larger market research firms from scoffing at the Visionary Shopper methodology. “They think we’re a short-lived fad,” says Needel, though this does reduce the risk of on-screen “shoppers” treating the exercise like a game.

In the US, where the system usually comes complete with a soundtrack, car tyre manufacturers have used Visionary Shopper, complete with squealing tyres, to test various new products and promotions.

And the ability to use sound has now attracted vacuum cleaner manufacturers.

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