While the opportunities VR and the metaverse offer for the customer experience is a well-explored path, the technology also has the potential to greatly increase retailers’ efficiency on the backend. Purina is taking advantage of these possibilities, using the technology to connect with its retail partners to design planograms remotely, which can save time and boost sustainability with accurate shelf simulations.
Purina has been putting an emphasis on going beyond verbal communication with its retail partners to help them create great in-store displays, according to Gene Feldman, Training Manager at Purina. Working together in-person and having visual examples has helped both parties better understand what looks best for every unique aisle, as opposed to simply telling them what to do. However, COVID-19 created a significant hurdle for this approach.
“When the pandemic came, we were no longer able to get in front of the stores,” said Feldman in an interview with Retail TouchPoints. “We were no longer able to be at aisle. A lot of the belly-to-belly sales that we always prided ourselves on — we really strive to have that type of relationship with our retailers — was reduced. And so we really had to find ways that we could use technology and different forms of communication to give us back that nonverbal aspect.”
Purina has been working with Blue Yonder to harness the solution provider’s category management solution in conjunction with its partner 3DVR Solutions’ Retail Visualisation Suite (RVS) as it continues to develop its VR capabilities.
Three Pillars Define the Success of Nestle’s VR Initiatives
Purina parent company Nestle’s experiments with the metaverse predated the pandemic, but that period has helped it solidify the potential of virtual platforms. The company now has three broad requirements for the technology:
- Communication: Users shouldn’t need access to expensive VR headwear to access the platform and ensure everyone can experience the virtual world together. The addition of virtual avatars has helped build connections in a similar manner to the way people play video games;
- Replicating Geographic Locations: The technology had to prove it could be used to accurately recreate existing locations, such as stores, in order for it to be useful as a replacement for tasks that are usually handled in the real world; and
- Usability: There needed to be a real buy-in from users to make it widespread and worth significant investment. Feldman likened this process to how early smartphones were considered curiosities, but as tools to enable work were added they became an everyday (and indispensable) part of life.
The third use case is the most important, and the current efforts are making it a reality, according to Feldman. “That’s where we’re trying to get to with the metaverse,” he said. “In order to make that hurdle, shelving became our biggest use case because it’s the most functional. If we’re able to have this type of experience, think about how we can open it up for shopping.”
Details go far Beyond Static Images
One of the key advantages of managing planograms in virtual reality is the complete control over the environment that it provides. Everything — from the height the shelf is viewed from to the brightness of the lights to the color of the walls — can be adjusted and reflected in what users see, which enables Purina to explore setups in a wide array of settings.
“One of the big things that we tried to do is to throw the brand imagery, as well as our customer imagery, into each of the stores to try to create that customized experience,” said Feldman. “Within the digital space you can control the environment a little bit more, so if we want to see what a product would look like in the day versus night, we can do several planograms. We’re able to add fish tanks to where we can actually see animated fish moving. What we’re now able to start doing is add those trivial objects that we see every day in our shopping experiences and that we just get used to seeing — it adds a little bit more reality to the digital experience.”
Using a virtual space also greatly streamlines the process of testing out multiple planograms. It can take hours to set up shelves stocked with small items that come in shrink-wrapped pallets, which is common with products like wet pet food, but the same process can be completed in a fraction of the time in a virtual environment. This makes it much easier to try multiple iterations in search of the best possible arrangement.
“Setting up shelves with the pet food, especially when we’re looking at the cat aisle, can take up to eight hours — and then then what do you do if doesn’t look right or a better idea comes up?” Feldman said. “You have to redo it. That efficiency [from using VR] also comes with a greater sense of confidence that when you go to make the final decision, you have a strong idea of what it should look like.”
The best way to use the virtual software is as a quality check at both ends of the planning process, according to Feldman. When a retailer starts rearranging a shelf, RVS can ensure that it looks right before associates get to work. Then, once the process is complete, the virtual view is an easy way to make sure everything has been placed correctly, even remotely.
Remote Planning can Benefit the Environment
While the pressures that caused the full-fledged adoption of virtual planogram creation have receded, the world is now effectively a hybrid place. This means that the role of the metaverse will only grow in retail, as shoppers and businesses alike look for ways to merge virtual and in-person experiences to make switching between them as seamless as possible.
Additionally, the technology has the potential to bolster sustainability on a large scale. Enabling regional managers and salespeople to design individual displays with retailers, all from one location, can create significant emissions savings by greatly reducing travel.
“Nestle Purina is on the forefront here, but the trend we see from all these CPGs is that the right balance needs to be found with digital alternatives,” said Philip Teschemacher, Corporate VP of Manufacturing and Execution – EMEA for Blue Yonder in an interview with Retail TouchPoints. “I, for example, am based out of Scandinavia, where sustainability is a must. It’s no longer just a buzzword. There’s a drive to find alternatives, and this is one of them.”