Consumer Reactions in a Realistic Virtual Shop :
Influence on Buying Style

Anne-Cécile Jeandrain

Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium


The author examines the impacts of immersion in a virtual shop and its impact on consumer behaviour. Intuitively, consumers should prefer a immersive virtual shop because of its aestheticism and more realistic and natural look. However, results from an exploratory study demonstrate that consumer reactions depend primarily on their buying style (experiential or utilitarian). The experientials, i.e. persons who consider shopping as a recreation, prefer shopping in a realistic virtual shop. In contrast, the utilitarians, i.e. persons who consider shopping as a task, dislike this kind of shop because of its lack of convenience. Therefore, for retailers, providing realistic immersive experience to experiential consumers is a very interesting way to differentiate from competitors.


Today the world is facing a new and revolutionary manner in which people shop through Interactive Home Shopping (I.H.S.). The term “interactivity” captures the quality of two-way communication between two parties, person as well as machine (Hoffman and Novak 1996). On the one hand, the shopper could have some control to modify environment content, have the freedom to navigate through the virtual shop, etc. (person-machine interactivity). On the other hand, the shopper could communicate with the retailer and with other customers (person-person interactivity). “Home” is taken in a broad sense here and means a shopping activity located somewhere else than in a store (Alba et al. 1997). For instance, based on this definition, shopping using a mobile phone is also considered as Home Shopping.

For consumers, I.H.S. could offer benefits superior to other non-store channels (e.g. CD-Rom catalogue, television home shopping) because of its interactivity and superiority to traditional store channels in terms of its possibility to locate and compare product offerings (Alba et al. 1997). In contrast, for retailers I.H.S. could be more a threat than an opportunity. Indeed, providing these benefits to consumers considerably intensifies competition between retailers. Therefore, creating an online competitive advantage is a crucial issue for them and immersive experience, a new manner to conceive I.H.S.

This paper aims to examine how an immersive shopping environment creates product differentiation and added value for consumers.

Interactive Home Shopping

The diffusion of I.H.S. is facilitated by many factors such as advances in Internet technologies, ease of access (at home and/or at work), new consumer expectations (e.g., more requirements on information quality and quantity, need to have a close relationship with the company). The following statistics show this fact. Effectively, Internet retail sites are quite promising. More than 80 percent of people have made a purchase online since they started using the Internet (Nielsen/Netratings & Harris Interactive eCommerce Pulse March 2001). Projections are also optimistic: Worldwide online revenue is anticipated to be multiplied by ten in 2004 (Forrester Research Inc. May 2001). Internet could be considered as a very attractive market for companies.

Therefore, more and more companies are (or want to be) involved in online shopping and expect to succeed substantially. In management, the key driver for success is the building of a sustainable competitive advantage (Porter 1985), i.e. to acquire such characteristics that give to the company some superiority over its direct competitors (Kotler 1999). These could be of two types: either based on differentiation (i.e. to have unique elements from different from the competitors and valued by consumers) or based on cost domination (i.e. to have a lower unit cost than its competitors). It is not logical to always claim cost advantage in the online environment. Indeed, companies will enjoy some lower costs (Porter 2001) in some instances such as cheaper online promotion in comparison with traditional media or in reaching new markets without any intermediary. However, electronic retailers will incur higher costs to deliver merchandise to homes (Weitz 2000). Brand name image could differentiate brick-and-mortar retailers while e-tailers have to build it and find competitive advantage. However, Internet per se will rarely be a durable competitive advantage because Internet technology could be easily imitated (Porter 2001). Nonetheless, as Internet is a relatively novel environment for many people, it is a less typical venue for consumption (Coupey 2001). Therefore for most of us online experience will be unique, leading to brand differentiation.

To be valued by online users, the virtual experience has to be compelling. The user’s immersion in virtual reality could deliver such experience (Novak, Hoffman and Yung 2000). Immersive virtual reality implies the replacement of the individual’s physical environment with the virtual environment (Potter 1996), which means an inseparable perception of the individual from his perception of the virtual environment. The immersive experience is compelling: “immersion includes the extent to which the computer displays are extensive, surrounding, inclusive, vivid and matching” (Slater 1995, p. 204). Therefore, immersion could be an efficient support for differentiation among retailers.

Immersive retail sites

Although almost all retail sites use traditional 2D interfaces (see exhibit 1), virtual stores exploiting 3D-representation (or quasi 3D) are beginning to emerge (see exhibit 2). A traditional 2D virtual store will display its products as conventional 2D static images. Based primarily on a spatial metaphor, immersive shops attempt to recreate the physical world, i.e. allows the consumer to visualise the product, to walk around the shop, etc.

Exhibit 1 : designed in a conventional way (

Amazon Conventional


Exhibit 2 : designed in a immersive way (

Amazon Immersive


One goal for developing immersive retail sites is to make them easy for people to experience virtual shopping (Coupey 2001) and, as such, to make virtual stores more natural and consistent with the shopper’s previous physical experience (Novak, Hoffman and Yung 2000). Nonetheless, immersive retail sites require specific software, hardware, and people in order to implement them. Moreover, the implementation cost increases with the richness of contextual details. Therefore, given the costs of providing immersion and more particularly realistic immersion, it is interesting to ask about its benefits and its disadvantages. In other words, to what extent immersion and its realism contribute to the shopping experience quality?

This research could also further our understanding of telepresence. Quality of virtual immersion could be captured with the telepresence concept, i.e. “the perceptual illusion of non-mediation” (Lombard and Ditton 1997). Although more and more studies focus on the antecedents of telepresence (media content variables, media form variables and user characteristics), there is an evident lack of results on how each of these factors contribute to telepresence: ceteris paribus, what is the incremental influence of the context realism? In comparison with virtual catalogue, it is argued that immersion has tremendous advantages such as the opportunity to experience shopping like entertainment, to adopt an exploratory behaviour, and to have consumption visions, which have themselves influenced marketing impacts. First, electronic commerce sites should satisfy not only customers with a rational style of buying, but also customers with an emotional style of buying, i.e. people who view shopping as entertainment or recreation (Jones 1999). Entertaining shopping experience is linked to the increase of time spent in the store, spending, unplanned purchases, and liking of the store (Babin, Darden and Griffin 1994). Immersive retail sites could offer a lot of pleasurable stimuli such as hyper-realistic design. Therefore, shopping in such sites could be easily considered as entertainment or recreation. Besides consumers’ attraction, immersive experience will induce site loyalty (Shih 1998), i.e. consumers’ retention. The users will come back to the store for enjoying the virtual shopping experience again.

Second, immersive virtual experience is potentially an intrinsically motivated activity, i.e. activity for which there is no apparent reward except the activity itself (Deci 1975). Intrinsic motivation is associated (among other things) with exploratory behaviour (Deci and Ryan 1992). The underlying theory of consumer exploratory behaviour is the optimal stimulation theory (Hunt 1965), based on the notion that organisms need a moderate level (psychological or physiological) of stimulation in order to function effectively. Two stimulation types are identified in the desire for exploration, namely sensory stimulation and cognitive stimulation (Baumgartner and Steenkamp 1996). On the one hand, exploratory consumer behaviour leads to the sensory stimulation in purchasing risky and innovative products. In this case, the consumer enjoys buying unfamiliar products or even innovative ones and is willing to change his purchase experience. On the other hand, the second impact is the cognitive stimulation in acquiring consumption relevant knowledge. In this other case, the consumer likes to go browsing and window-shopping and is interested in all forms of product information (Baumgartner and Steenkamp 1996). As immersion in a virtual environment increases, exploratory consumer behaviour is likely to increase.

Finally, another advantage of immersion is to facilitate the generation of consumption visions. “Consumption visions are self-constructed mental simulations of future consumption situations” (Phillips 1996, p.70), which allow consumers to more accurately anticipate actual consequences of product use (Philips, Olson and Baumgartner 1995). Therefore, consumption visions motivate the consumer to enact behaviours they imagine in these visions and are positively correlated with buying intentions (Phillips 1996). Antecedents of consumption visions are the degrees of verbal and visual details in the environment, which are characteristics of realistic immersive environment.

Besides these positive effects, realistic retail sites could also have negative marketing impacts. First of all, virtual stores based on physical reality are completely in conflict with the often-quoted reason for online shopping (GartnerG2 August 2001), namely convenience of shopping without the physical world constraints (Donthu and Garcia 1999). As elements from the real world are often used in immersive retail sites (to seem more natural), shopping there (exploring virtual mall, surfing along shelves, etc.) takes much more time than using a search engine. Therefore, if people consider shopping as a boring task, lacking any hedonic value, then realism might not be the most appropriate tactic because it could take longer.
Second, if immersive virtual experience is potentially an intrinsically motivated activity, the user could explore the virtual environment not for shopping but simply for visiting it. Therefore, exploration could distract the shopper from his probable goals (e.g. searching information, buying).

Finally, transforming online shopping into “fun shopping” could generate other benefits, such as improved brand recognition. Nonetheless, more than 69% of retailers judge the success of their Internet investments based on online sales and profits (Jupiter Media Metric 2001). Therefore, these companies don’t take into account offline sales or non-transactional metrics, which are very important in order to evaluate immersive retail sites. These sites could be considered as inefficient in regards on company criteria.

In summary, there are contrasting advantages and disadvantages of a realistic immersive retail site (see exhibit 3). The purpose of this exploratory study is to clarify this fuzzy situation.

Exhibit 3 : Advantages and disadvantages of a realistic immersive retail site

Advantages Disadvantages
  • Entertaining shopping experience
  • Lack of convenience
  • Exploratory consumer behaviour
  • Distraction from purchase
  • Precise consumption visions
  • Other advantages than those wanted by companies
  • Cost

Research questions

The general research question is to know to what extent realism of virtual environment contributes to the quality of shopping experience. This study aims to address the following questions:

-Is realistic contextualization of product preferred by consumers in comparison with traditional virtual catalogue?

-Is the factor of convenience taken into account in realistic immersive shop?

-Do consumers consider shopping in a realistic immersive site as entertainment?

-Do they come back to have such experience again?

-Is the preference for retail site style dependent on the user’s expertise of virtual reality environments (novice versus expert)? Does the novice find immersive experience more pleasant than the expert?

-Can rich visual presentation distort the decision process by diverting attention to peripheral cues and away from primary goals? Or, conversely, is the realistic virtual shop an efficient means of screening the product to find the most appealing options for more detailed set of consideration? In other words, how does product contextualization affect consumers’ willingness to make choices without directly experiencing the product?


Case study research is the more appropriate method in order to focus the “how” and “why” questions of a contemporary event (such as the understanding of consumer behaviour in immersive virtual shop) (Yin 1989, 1993).

Four cases were selected for their informational quality and for their degree of realism. Based on the replication logic used in case study research, the two first cases (see exhibit 4) pursue the literal replication (i.e. when similar results are predicted) while the two last cases (see exhibit 5) follow the theoretical replication (i.e. when contrary results are produced but for predictable reasons).

Exhibit 4: Virtual mall ( virtual shop (

Virtual Mall 1Virtual Shop 1

Exhibit 5: Virtual mall ( virtual shop ( in a non-realistic way

Virtual Mall 2Virtual Shop 2

The sample consists of twenty postgraduate students from a Management School at a Belgian University. While these respondents represent potential online shoppers, their field of study (management) is a limitation.

In a laboratory setting each participant was free to navigate in a specific immersive virtual shop and free to stop navigating. The particular technique in case study research is the use of multiple sources of evidence in order to have a more robust study. Therefore, the database includes observation, interviews, and questionnaires. The observer located in a corner of the lab captured the participant’s eye movement and navigation track. An interviewer used an interview guide to probe the motivation to navigate through the site, the moment of navigation, the place, etc.

After the experiment, the participant filled out a very short questionnaire describing his impressions, feelings and moods about the shopping experience.

Empirical evidence

It is important to notice none of the participants had experienced this way of shopping before surfing through the immersive virtual shop or mall.

The results show that almost the majority of respondents liked the immersive site at first sight because of entertainment and novelty, and especially the realistic immersive site because of aesthetics. Some of the descriptions are presented below:

“Funny experience”, “Very exciting”, etc. “Never experienced before”, “Very original”, “More modern”, etc. “Nice for navigating”, “It’s very beautiful”, “Very well made”, etc.

Nonetheless, for some participants, this enjoyment decreases rapidly throughout the experiment, regardless of the degree of realism. It is clear that spatial metaphor demonstrates its important limitation: less convenience.

“It is a pity that you must take the escalator each time you want to reach the other floors of the mall! It is boring!”, ” I am completely lost … lost in a virtual shop! It’s ridiculous!”, “It is very frustrating !”, “It is not simple … you have to push on a lot of buttons “, “There are more constraints than a real shop”, etc. “If you are loyal to a brand, it is impossible to go for directly buying it … you lost very much your time!”, “There is a mall map but you don’t have the opportunity to click through and to go directly to a particular shop”, etc.

After more or less five minutes of experimentation, two groups could be clearly distinguished: the first group that very quickly discovered the limit of realistic immersion, called the “utilitarian” group, and the second group that was always very enthusiast about this environment, called the “experiential” group. For the “utilitarian” group, realism is not attractive at all. The utilitarians consider shopping as a boring task, a task to do as quickly and efficiently as possible.

“For me, doing shopping is boring in the real world as well as in the virtual one”, “I prefer search engine, it’s quicker !”, etc. “If you know your product, you go buy it directly …You don’t need any décor !”, etc. “Information is the most important for me … I would like more information than beautiful fountain”, “I will feel more confident with more information …There is not a lot of information there …In fact, décor is instead of information ! Maybe in order to hide something ! “, etc.

As the utilitarians consider it a loss of time to do shopping and specifically in such environment, they will do shopping there only to find uncommon products, i.e. products that are impossible to find in traditional physical stores (for instance, objects made by craftsmen).

In contrast, the second group, i.e. the “experiential” group, liked shopping and more particularly window-shopping. Therefore, this group likes the opportunity to do the same in a virtual store. Moreover, if they don’t make a shopping list in the real world, it is easy to maintain their unplanned behaviour in the virtual retail site (in opposition with traditional virtual catalogue).

“It is very practical at work because sometimes you have not enough time to go in the mall … You could do that in the virtual one”, etc. “I hate search engine… I never find what I want …Here I will never be lost!”, etc. “I don’t make shopping list … I prefer walking in the store and seeing what I want, what I need. It is a great way for me to do home shopping”, etc.

If experientials are used to buying at home (online or offline), they are not reticent to replicate such behaviour in immersive virtual store. On the other hand, a novice in home shopping is not confident in buying sensory products, such as clothes, but might consider CDs or books.Having enthusiasm for the medium per se doesn’t depend on Internet experience level. Indeed, novice as well as expert could like or hate an immersive virtual site. At the same time, the appreciation of Internet as an interesting tool for searching for information or even for buying product and/or service increases with the experience level.The incremental advantage of realism is a priori the replication of the natural settings. It permits consumers to behave as they do in the real world. Therefore, they know the rules and are therefore reassured.. For the utilitarians, confidence doesn’t depend on degree of realism of the virtual retail site, but on information quantity and quality.Utilitarians don’t appreciate shopping in realistic immersive retail sites. They are very demanding. They expect both advantages given by Internet technology (e.g. “teleportation” like in “Star Strek”) and advantages from the real world (e.g. product presentation) but without its constraints (e.g. virtually walking). This requirement decreases when the degree of realism increases. Indeed, in a store (or mall) with less precise details, the respondents never expect less “physical” advantages like trolley or presence of salespeople.

In summary, it is clear that consumer preference for retail site style depends on his group membership (“experiential” group or “utilitarian” one). Everybody wants to replicate his or her “real world” behaviour in the virtual one — fun shopping for the “experiential” group and quick shopping for the “utilitarian” group.

Implications for retailers

To have online success, retailers have to find a sustainable competitive advantage, a differential value from competitors’ sites, and a realistic virtual retail site. Traditionally, some store-based retailers have used store design and atmosphere to differentiate their offering from competing retailers. The design of web sites in terms of sensory experience may play a similar role for electronic retailers (Weitz 2000).Appropriate customer interface is then a critical requirement to succeed online. Nonetheless, based on our empirical results, retailers couldn’t make a choice between immersive virtual site and non-immersive one but must offer both. The preference between these two types depends on the consumer’s buying style (utilitarian or experiential), i.e. a psychological trait and therefore out of the control of the company. The experientials like immersion very much while the utilitarians find it not convenient at all. With this proposal, these two types of consumers should be satisfied.If the electronic retailer has enough resources to offer immersion site and non-immersion sites, he has to be conscious that experientials and utilitarians have very different needs. It is important to notice that “the critical issue determining what types of merchandise can be sold successfully by electronic retailers is the degree to which the electronic retailers can provide enough information prior to the purchase to make sure consumers will be satisfied with the merchandise once they get it” (Weitz 2000, p. 221). For the “utilitarian” group, information quality and quantity about product and service are very important. They are more cognitive than affective. The experientials go into a store for distraction, novelty discovering, and then for buying. Therefore, the store must be “convivial” but also efficient (consumers must easily find products). They are more affective than cognitive. Nonetheless, a compromise has to be found in the aestheticism degree of the immersive virtual shop. Indeed, on the one hand, nice design could facilitate impulse buying because this depends on design elements of the site itself. On the other hand, “too” nice design could also distract the consumer from his goals that could be the purchase. For instance, during the experimentation, some respondents lose the sense of direction due to the exploration of the environment itself.The discussion about site realism degree concerns only experientials and could result in an increase of store confidence.In conclusion, if the electronic retailer lacks brand image or company recognition, well-done realistic immersion could more easily create symbols that will build this image, which could translate into a sustainable competitive advantage.

Further research

The important limitation of this study is its exploratory character. Nonetheless, this study has permitted the formulation of interesting theoretical proposals about the contribution of realistic implementation in a shopping context, proposals that could be the basis for further research (more confirmatory than exploratory)

H1: For buying a product/service, realism of a virtual retail site is a disadvantage for people who are utilitarian because of lack of convenience.

H2: For buying a product/service, realism of virtual retail site is an advantage for people who are experiential because of natural setting implementation.

H3: For information search, realism of virtual retail site is a disadvantage for people who are utilitarian because of lack of convenience.

H4: For information search, realism of virtual retail site is an advantage for people who are experiential because of entertainment and atmosphere.

H5:For the experientals and not for the utilitarians, realism induces more consumer confidence.

H6: Internet experience doesn’t have impact on realism preference but on Internet utility appreciation.

H7: As the degree of realism increases, the more the utilitarian consumer will demand for interesting advantages.

H8: As the degree of aestheticism increases, the more the experiential consumer will be distracted from his first goals.

Other interesting questions:

-If individuals can create complex cognitive, virtual images in their minds (consumption visions), is sophisticated realistic implementation still needed?
-Even if the experiential consumer is distracted from purchase in a virtual environment that is “too” nicely designed, are there still positive effects from a marketing point of view (e.g. increase of the brand name image or of the brand recognition)?
-As all the respondents of this study were novices in immersive environment, is there a novelty effect and how important is it?


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About the Authors

Anne-Cécile Jeandrain is Research and Teaching Assistant in IAG School of Management at Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium. E-mail : [email protected]