A three-dimensional virtual supermarket software tool has been designed by a member of the University of Auckland’s Institute for Health Innovation.
The supermarket simulates a real shopping experience and was designed using the Auckland branch of a market leading supermarket as a model.
It includes a representative selection of products comparable to what is normally available in a New Zealand supermarket (totalling 1,445 unique products).
Dr. Wilma Waterlander, from the University and the creator of the tool, says it will be used to measure food purchase behaviour and will be able to test the effectiveness of food-related policy changes.
The virtual supermarket is designed to enable experimental studies in a supermarket setting without the complexity or costs normally associated with undertaking such research, says Waterlander.
“For example, researchers can use it to test the effect of public health interventions such as a soft drink tax or food labelling, by exposing only part of a study population to increased soft drink prices.
“Researchers can fully control and manipulate various factors such as food prices, food labels, and promotions,” she says.
Waterlander led a validation study to test the virtual supermarket, that was recently published in the international scientific Journal of Medical Internet Research.
In the study, 123 New Zealand adults completed three shopping trips in the virtual supermarket during three consecutive weeks and collected their real life grocery till receipts for that same period.
“We found that shopping patterns in the virtual supermarket were comparable to those in real life and that, overall, the virtual supermarket is a valid tool to measure food purchasing behaviour”, says Waterlander.
The four food groups ‘fruit and vegetables’, ‘dairy’, ‘meat and fish’ and ‘bread and bakery’ represented the largest purchase amounts both in the virtual and real supermarket.
“The study revealed some important opportunities to further improve the software with some important differences between virtual and real purchases shown for purchases in the food groups ‘fruits and vegetables’, ‘dairy’ and ‘snack foods’ and the researchers are working on improving the software for these groups,” says Waterlander.
Some advantages of the research tool also include the ability of researchers to test interventions without the complexity or cost normally associated with undertaking such research.
Researchers can also retain their academic independence which is particularly relevant when testing interventions that might not be favoured by commercial parties, says Waterlander.
For the study participants, there is also the convenience of completing the virtual supermarket shopping from the comfort of their own home.