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RTI iShoppe® – Consumer Health Behavior Research Tool

A virtual shopping environment customized for studies in public health policy that focus on nutrition and food labeling, tobacco products, and more

Today’s marketplace offers consumers a nearly infinite array of choices. Understanding these purchase decisions is essential for informing public policy in health-related areas such as nutrition labeling, obesity prevention, and smoking cessation, among others. But researchers rarely have the kind of control in the retail environment that would allow them to set up experiments that are both realistic and scientifically sound. RTI iShoppe software fills this need, offering two 3-D shopping environments—a supermarket and a convenience store.

Designed and developed by our experts specifically to support public policy research, RTI iShoppe was first used in 2011 to study tobacco policy using the virtual convenience store environment. A second version has since been created that features a supermarket environment with an in-store pharmacy.

Versatile Features Enable a Realistic Experience and Accommodate Any Experimental Design

With its 3D graphics and intuitive, open-ended navigation, RTI iShoppe looks like a simple video game, but it is a sophisticated tool. And it is completely customizable.

Our developers and researchers configure nearly every aspect of the virtual shopping experience—including the packaging, price, and placement of products, as well as signage and other point-of sale information in the environment. This flexibility supports a wide variety of experimental designs.

RTI iShoppe collects metadata on how respondents interact with products and the store environment. For example, our tool can track how respondents move through the store, measure how long it takes respondents to make their purchase decision, determine whether they look at a specific part of the package, and count the number of products they compare before making a final choice. An additional feature enables RTI iShoppe to assess how consumers respond to price, by allowing our researchers to adjust the pricing of all products to reflect market prices in the respondent’s location.

RTI iShoppe supports both small, in-person studies and larger studies using a web-enabled panel. This flexibility means research can be conducted cost-effectively on a local, regional or national scale. In addition to great scalability, RTI iShoppe is highly accessible. It does not require study participants to download third-party software, making it more convenient and reducing potential barriers to reaching limited resource populations.

Employing RTI iShoppe Studies to Inform Health and Public Policy

Our experts in tobacco control and food and nutrition have used the RTI iShoppe environment to uncover insights into consumer behaviors that may have implications for public policy.

In 2014, we used RTI iShoppe to study the effects of tobacco ads and product displays in convenience stores. We found that when tobacco displays are covered up, adult smokers and recent quitters reported significantly lower urges to smoke and were less likely to select tobacco products for purchase.

Current studies we are pursuing with RTI iShoppe focus on consumers’ response to emerging products such as e-cigarettes, and how messages to discourage tobacco use can be effectively communicated at the point-of-sale. 

Under a project funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, we are using the supermarket environment to study the way consumers respond to existing systems for front-of-package nutrition labeling. Our goals are to determine which types of labels are most useful to consumers, to provide information that policymakers can use to improve the nutrition labeling system in the U.S., and ultimately, to promote a better-informed public.

Enhancing RTI iShoppe for Deeper Insights

The RTI iShoppe team continues to enhance the tool for greater utility and more valuable data.

Recently, we integrated eyetracking— moving eyetracking technology beyond two-dimensional screens, and into the 3D realm of our virtual store—to provide additional insights into how consumers focus their attention in the shopping environment.

RTI iShoppe is part of our efforts to help researchers take advantage of cutting-edge technology. We believe virtual-reality tools can lead to greater understanding of consumers’ real-world behavior, and ultimately to policies that improve the human condition.