Case: Shopping in the virtual supermarket(Publicatie)

In a virtual supermarket customers do virtual shopping in a digital environment. This makes it possible to research factors which influence purchasing behaviour, such as price, labelling and location of items. Dr Wilma Waterlander has been working with this research tool for many years. Her aim is to encourage consumers to eat more healthily.

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18 MAY 2016

Wide range of unhealthy foods

The number of people who are obese or suffer from type 2 diabetes has increased significantly in the West over recent decades. ‘We now know that our food environment is one of the main reasons for this,’ says Wilma Waterlander, who worked at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and now works in New Zealand. ‘There is a wide range of cheap and convenient unhealthy foods readily available to us. In other words, obesity is not just an individual problem, but also an environmental one. Consumers are constantly under pressure to buy as much as possible. Our slogan is therefore: 'Make the healthy choice the easy choice'.’

 

Experimenting in the virtual supermarket

In order to find out how people's purchasing behaviour can be influenced, Waterlander is working with a virtual supermarket: ‘We wanted to find out whether changing the supermarket environment might encourage people to choose healthier options. For example, you can confront a group of testers with a price increase, such as a tax on fizzy drinks. You can then see whether this group buys less fizzy drink than a control group. But it's almost impossible to conduct an experiment of this type in a real supermarket. That's why we developed the virtual supermarket, so we could test every possible intervention.’

Virtual shopping

In the virtual supermarket the researchers can manipulate all kinds of variables, such as the price, the labels or the location of items. Participants receive a login for the supermarket which is linked automatically to a specific research term, such as a tax on soft drinks. ‘We ask them to shop for their household for a week,’ says Waterlander. ‘The participants push their trolleys along the aisles, selecting products. All their purchases are recorded and we then analyse the results.’

Encouraging healthy purchases

Waterlander and her colleagues have conducted a total of 4 experiments with the virtual supermarket. All the experiments indicate that changing prices is an effective way of encouraging healthier purchases, says Waterlander: ‘In two studies we found that subsidising healthy products resulted in more purchases of healthy products. But customers continued to buy just as many unhealthy products, so overall they bought more. Another study indicated that a tax on soft drinks caused customers to buy fewer soft drinks. Labels appeared to have less of an impact. Finally, we conducted a validation study in which we compared the buying behaviour in the virtual supermarket with that in a real supermarket. This indicated that customers buy similar products in both the virtual supermarket and the real supermarket.’

 

Collaboration with SURFsara

The virtual supermarket was built by SURFsara, even though Waterlander is currently conducting her research at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. But this doesn't cause any issues for collaboration: ‘The people I work with at SURFsara understand how scientific research works and are very tolerant of our constant demands for new functionality. They're also willing to go the extra mile to ensure that the project is a success. We have a really good working relationship and mutual trust. We talk to each other weekly on Skype, so we keep up good communication at a distance.’

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Latest modifications 18 May 2016