The virtual supermarket is designed to enable experimental studies in a supermarket setting without the costs normally associated with undertaking such research, says its creator, Dr Wilma Waterlander, from the University of Auckland’s National Institute for Health Innovation.
“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,” Waterlander says.
“Researchers can fully control and manipulate various factors such as food prices, food labels, and promotions.”
The virtual supermarket simulates a real shopping experience and was designed using the Auckland branch of a popular supermarket as a model. It includes a representative selection of products comparable to what is normally available in a New Zealand supermarket, totalling 1445 products.
In a validation study, 123 New Zealand adults completed three shopping trips in the virtual supermarket across 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.”
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,” Waterlander said.
Advantages of the research tool include the ability of researchers to test interventions without the complexity or cost normally associated with undertaking such research.
Researchers can also retain academic independence, which is particularly relevant when testing interventions that might not be favoured by commercial parties.