Open Access Software

The virtual supermarket: An innovative research tool to study consumer food purchasing behaviour

Wilma E Waterlander1*, Michael Scarpa2, Daisy Lentz3 and Ingrid HM Steenhuis4

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Health Sciences and EMGO+ Institute for Health and Care Research, VU University, De Boelelaan 1085, 1081 HV Amsterdam, the Netherlands

2 Aardman Studios, Gas Ferry Road, Bristol, BS1 6UN, UK

3 Department of Health Sciences and EMGO+ Institute for Health and Care Research, VU University, De Boelelaan 1085, 1081 HV Amsterdam, the Netherlands

4 Department of Health Sciences and EMGO+ Institute for Health and Care Research, VU University, De Boelelaan 1085, 1081 HV Amsterdam, the Netherlands

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BMC Public Health 2011, 11:589  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-11-589

Published: 25 July 2011

Abstract

Background

Economic interventions in the food environment are expected to effectively promote healthier food choices. However, before introducing them on a large scale, it is important to gain insight into the effectiveness of economic interventions and peoples' genuine reactions to price changes. Nonetheless, because of complex implementation issues, studies on price interventions are virtually non-existent. This is especially true for experiments undertaken in a retail setting. We have developed a research tool to study the effects of retail price interventions in a virtual-reality setting: the Virtual Supermarket. This paper aims to inform researchers about the features and utilization of this new software application.

Results

The Virtual Supermarket is a Dutch-developed three-dimensional software application in which study participants can shop in a manner comparable to a real supermarket. The tool can be used to study several food pricing and labelling strategies. The application base can be used to build future extensions and could be translated into, for example, an English-language version. The Virtual Supermarket contains a front-end which is seen by the participants, and a back-end that enables researchers to easily manipulate research conditions. The application keeps track of time spent shopping, number of products purchased, shopping budget, total expenditures and answers on configurable questionnaires. All data is digitally stored and automatically sent to a web server. A pilot study among Dutch consumers (n = 66) revealed that the application accurately collected and stored all data. Results from participant feedback revealed that 83% of the respondents considered the Virtual Supermarket easy to understand and 79% found that their virtual grocery purchases resembled their regular groceries.

Conclusions

The Virtual Supermarket is an innovative research tool with a great potential to assist in gaining insight into food purchasing behaviour. The application can be obtained via an URL and is freely available for academic use. The unique features of the tool include the fact that it enables researchers to easily modify research conditions and in this way study different types of interventions in a retail environment without a complex implementation process. Finally, it also maintains researcher independence and avoids conflicts of interest that may arise from industry collaboration.