Spar creates 'virtual supermarket world' with Ulster University's new lab

Dr Amy Burns, director of the Food and Consumer Testing Suite (FACTS) at Ulster University, with Jonny Agnew, general manager of Henderson Kitchen, at the new consumer insights lab at the UU Coleraine campus

RETAILER Spar NI has become the first company in the north to broaden its insights into consumer behaviour with Ulster University's new virtual reality (VR) facility.

The consumer insights lab on UU's Coleraine campus, which is the first VR grocery store facility on the island of Ireland for shopper research, is modelled on a real-life Spar store, and will enable the company to gain even further data on how and why shoppers choose specific groceries in a store environment.

It's the latest in a series of collaborations between the two bodies, with the university business school's Food and Consumer Testing Suite (FACTS) undertaking taste tests with members of the public for Spar's own-brand 'Enjoy Local' range over the past four years, providing real and robust data to inform its development.

UU Business School has invested in the new virtual reality facilities in a bid to help support local food and drink businesses to better understand the “why behind the buy”.

The new VR suite encompasses a virtual UU Spar store complete with every real element of a community store, from point-of-sale messaging to promotional packaging.

The team has completed work on its first project – Spar's shopping mission, Tonight's Tea, which looked at the influences that inform a shopper's decisions around which groceries to choose so they can cook a meal for themselves or their family.

This first collaborative project saw 10 members of the public “shop” in the VR lab, choosing between products available on the shelves at Spar stores across the north, ranging from big brands, own brand lines and a range of fresh and artisan products from local suppliers.

Jonny Agnew, general manager at Henderson Kitchen, said: “Our first project in the lab has shown us the key influential factors when making product choices, from price to promotion and freshness – cost of products is hugely important to many cohorts who took part in the project, and were less likely to choose big brand products when prices were available, opting for our own brands instead.

“These and the further insights we have gained from working with Dr Amy Burns at FACTS have been invaluable to the development of our own brand Enjoy Local range.

“We can stamp our packaging with taste test approved messaging, which our participants also said was important for them to see when choosing products, and this has enabled us to provide a higher standard of products at value prices.

“We know the value in collaborating with such an innovative team at Ulster University, and our Tonight's Tea project will aim to extract the data around decision making for creating a meal that night. We care about the ever-changing behaviour of shoppers, especially with the changes to lifestyles and living costs in recent years and months, and this continued partnership will help us build a more robust brand and shopping experience for our retailers and shoppers.”

Geoff Simmons, Professor in consumer behaviour and insight at Ulster University, says the consumer insights lab provides a learning opportunity never experienced before for their students.

He said: “This technology will enhance the student experience at Ulster University Business School, supporting their learning around retailing and consumer related studies, showing the importance of using real-time data to inform new product development.

“We have also created a 'Vulcan Store of the Future' within our VR technology, which is modelled on an Amazon Go store where shoppers can of course gain access via a QR Code on the Amazon app, pick up what they need and leave without physical payment. There is vast learning to be made through these separate models for both our students, our faculty and our local business partners.”

Ulster University Business School executive dean Professor Mark Durkin added: “At a time when the sector needs differential levels of support, I'm delighted to see the launch of the VR consumer insight lab, sitting alongside our FACTS suite.

“The suite has supported over 300 businesses in the last 10 years in Coleraine, and our award-winning Academy Restaurant in Belfast is developing knowledge and skills in hospitality and culinary arts.

“With our food and drink business development centre, the Business School is providing cutting-edge new thinking and practical support across Northern Ireland, in partnership with industry leading companies like the Henderson Group.”