Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Visual vignettes and virtual shopping

When I began teaching about food, I pointed out to my students that market researchers had much better information than social scientists, including studies that looked at how people moved through a store, what eye level was the most compelling for purchases, and whether it mattered if items were up front or back on the shelves. But the virtual shopping experience described by Valla Roth and Matt Draper of MarketTools reminds me that old fashioned social science research techniques can often provide better data than in-store surveys and tests. The system allows potential customers to walk through a supermarket on their home computers. The pictures of the aisles and the movement through the store are facilitated by 3D graphics, allowing the researcher to assess how and when a shopper might pick up a 3 for 1 deal or ignore the end-of-aisle displays.

Long before we had the computer graphics to make it virtual or sexy, I learned a similar technique demonstrated by the late Dr. Peter S. Rossi, head of the Social and Demographic Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Rossi pioneered a new method of research called the vignette technique (or in its less glamorous name, factorial survey), in which different descriptions of a situation are given to respondents, who are then asked a series of questions to elicit individual responses to each description. The vignette technique is great because it allows the researcher to measure and analyze fairly complex scenarios in a way that surveys and linear question-and-answer formats do not. Rossi and his wife Alice (an equally famous sociologist) used it to measure how people perceived their relationships and obligations to family, but vignettes have also been used in studies of AIDs/HIV, religious beliefs, and the delivery of social services to different populations. For all this, consumer market research has shown surprisingly little use of the technique, opting more for focus groups, surveys, and in-store tests.

In a way, MarketTools’ new approach is an “upgraded” vignette method. Giving the vignettes a 3D interface and having the consumer act out inside of a virtual environment combines the vignettes with a much-needed visual element. Since people are better at relating and responding to stories with a images,  we hope the collected responses will be better too. And imagine the next step: perhaps a Wii-like interface where you actually “walk” through the store and interact with objects.  It would be like The Sims for market research (but of course, in The Sims pizza never goes bad and groceries can be delivered at any hour of the day...)

Here are some limits and suggestions, though: No matter how sophisticated our graphics get, they are still a mere representation of reality. People’s main complaint about shopping on line is that the product image on the website does not match up to what arrives in their home. And while the grocery store layout is ubiquitous to most people, there is a certain fudge factor to getting it as realistic as possible, and comparable to what people are used to in the real world. In the end, real interactive video might prove more useful than graphic representations. Also, t one thing this method alone won't mimic the different types of shopping trip that people take -- the data won’t tell you if people on a milk run or a weekly shopping trip are most likely to make point-of-sale purchases. Tying the tech back to storylines and vignettes would help: give people a scenario before setting them lose in the virtual shopping world (“It’s Wednesday, only your teenage daughter will be home for dinner, and you have to be home in half an hour.”).

It’s almost impossible to follow customers around and see how they react to deals without being invasive. As much as I like talking to my informal research group in the supermarket, I don’t learn much about their point-of-sale behavior. But I am much more attuned to their overall patterns and cycles, their brand preferences, and the frequencies at which they buy certain products. I'd love to see how they make decisions in real time, even in an imperfect imaginary realm, so if that's the current state-of-the-art, I'll still take it.

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