There are two different, yet common, responses when people inquire about virtual shopper research:
“Awesome, I’ve always wanted to see what it looks like with VR goggles on!” or “Do I have to wear a headset for this?”
Both are valid reactions. Today, many retail teams are opting to use virtual simulations to mirror their real-world shelves and products in order to learn how shoppers will react in a risk-free space—but they understandably have questions about how VR works in this context.
Many people would rather not have to don somewhat cumbersome VR goggles. Others love the idea of being immersed in a completely simulated space. The good news is you have choices.
HMD vs. PC
A virtual head-mounted device (HMD) is what many just call VR goggles or headsets. When you think of virtual reality video games, this is what you probably picture. Wearing a HMD means you are fully immersed in a virtual world. You can look and walk all around the hyper-realistic 3D scenes and feel like you really exist in that space.
But, virtual simulations work on a PC as well. This requires no gear, just a wifi connection and computer. This partially immersive method lets you “walk” around and view the exact same hyper-realistic environment as above, without being completely cut off from the real world. Your view is what you see on your monitor. At InContext, this is the method we generally use for our clients. We’ll explain why, below.
Pros & Cons
When it comes to shopper research, both methods have their place. Let’s break down the pros and cons for the two different methods:
HMD – Pros
- More immersive – by far the number one reason to use an HMD is to feel like you are fully present in a store or shelf simulation. It is the most immersive way to interact with a virtual store.
- Captive audience attention – HMDs can provide 2-3x the mission duration than traditional web-based surveys, because they generate a more unique and novel experience than the average survey respondent gets. These tests generally take place in a central location with higher rewards incentives as well, leading to an expected higher interview length. This allows for multiple category shopping or longer way-finding methodologies that can answer more complex questions.
- High correlation to the real world – shoppers behave just as they would in a physical world shopping trip, with correlations at .91 or higher when compared against physical store tests.
HMD – Cons
- Limited sample size – HMDs are not yet ubiquitous, so most consumers today do not already own their own virtual reality goggles. You could run these tests in the homes of those that do have a headset, but very few brands or retailers consider video gamers their only audience. That leads to central location testing where sample sizes are much lower, more costly and more time consuming.
- Expensive – The price of VR headsets has come down in the last decade, but they are still expensive, and require more expensive computers to run them. Their central location nature of testing adds substantial cost as well.
- Lengthy training – Training someone to use VR headsets can be time-consuming, especially for someone who has no prior experience with virtual.
PC – Pros
- Large sample size – everyone has a PC, so the pool of shoppers to conduct research from is massive; in the multi-millions.
- Both quantitative and qualitative data – Because sample size is large and dynamic, this method allows for both quantitative shopper data, as well as qualitative—we can gather attitudinal feedback from shoppers to learn why they behaved as they did in the simulation.
- Cost-effective – running virtual simulations on a PC requires common computer equipment that most people have in their homes today, and modest bandwith requirements. No expensive gear needed.
- High correlation to the real world – shoppers behave just as they would in a physical world shopping trip, again at that .91 or higher when compared against physical store tests.
PC – Cons
- Smaller study areas – PC testing is ideally suited for single-category shopping missions where the respondent is in and out in 5-8 minutes.
So, which one is better?
Here’s the big takeaway: While both methods produce data that correlates highly with the physical world, right now PC testing is the most cost-effective and efficient option. The added expense and time to conduct in-person HMD tests is rarely necessary, since it yields nearly identical results.
That said, if you’re looking to field a multi-category shelf or aisle, or a large-store test, and in-person HMD test might be what you’re looking for. The market is nearing a point where untethered headsets are starting to become pervasive in homes, and InContext is currently working on ways to take advantage of the rise in personal HMD use, creating completely immersive methodologies that still mirror the price and timing of virtual testing via PC. For now, if you’re interested in virtual shopper research and how it can help your in-store decision making, just know you don’t have to put on VR goggles — unless you want to.