Trial subjects 'enter' the shop by way of three big video screens. Researchers can design supermarkets in great detail with an extra powerful computer. Just like in 'The Sims', but instead of furniture, there are refrigerators, shelves and cash registers. The shelves are fully stocked with three-dimensional product samples, such as wine bottles and butter cups.
Using arrow keys on the keyboard, 'customers' can stride along the rows of shelves, while researchers observe the smallest details of their behaviour, for example, which brands and types of products they look for as they tick off the items on their grocery list. 'We can see how long they pause at a certain spot,' says Erica van Herpen, assistant professor of Market Research and Consumer Behaviour. 'We can also see which product labels they read and in what order.' All this valuable information will tell us how the set-up in a shop can influence our buying behaviour.
Research done in a virtual supermarket is of course much more realistic than on a piece of paper. But there are also practical advantages compared to a concrete supermarket. Van Herpen: 'You have all the circumstances under control, so that other variables cannot assert any influence. Moreover, adjustments can be made which would not be possible in a real supermarket.' After all, most supermarket owners would not be willing to change colour schemes or layouts for a short study.
For a start, Van Herpen's study looks into the 'nudging' aspect. This involves using little 'nudges' to steer behaviour towards a good direction, such as being more sustainable or healthier. 'We want to ensure that the healthy choice is also the easiest choice,' says Van Herpen. She declines to say much about the research results yet as the study is still going on.
The study is merely the first step taken to find out what can be done later on. Van Herpen does not yet know in which direction they will go, but the possibilities are endless: 'You can use big screens, touch screens and the eye-tracking technique. Or you can develop a simple version which can be used on the internet.'