Unilever is using cutting-edge virtual reality technology to find out what makes shoppers tick. Nick Hughes tours the company’s Customer Insight and Innovation Centre

Unilever has promised us a technological tour de force and a glimpse inside the minds of shoppers - yet in front of us is just a bog-standard wood-panelled wall.

With a grin, our guide rests his palm nonchalantly against one of the panels, which slowly folds inwards to reveal a giant screen and sophisticated-looking digital equipment. 

It's all rather James Bond. One half expects to find chairman Dave Lewis reclined in an executive chair, stroking a white Persian cat.

The level of secrecy inside the company's new Customer Insight and Innovation Centre (CiiC) is of MI6 proportions.

The conversations that take place between Unilever and its retail customers will never leave here, but on this occasion a select few journalists have been invited in to see how the CiiC and, in particular, the cutting-edge virtual reality technology it employs is giving Unilever precious insights into how consumers shop fmcg categories.

Located at Unilever's UK HQ in Leatherhead, Surrey, the CiiC became the giant's second global insights hub (New York was the first) when it opened in March. A further three CiiCs will have opened around the world by the end of the year.

The highlight is the virtual reality suite, which allows Unilever to simulate the retail environment of any supermarket. Sitting in front of the giant screen and looking at a simulation of a store interior is as real as shopping gets without pushing a trolley up and down an aisle.

When the technicians generate an Asda store, the level of realism is staggering, right down to the point-of-sale information. Using a joystick, a virtual consumer whether the real deal or a retailer can move around the store. It is even possible to take a child's-eye view of the shelves or alter the height and size of the fixture.

"We can work with the customer to develop different looks and feels in-store," says Unilever customer marketing director Julie Watson. "Traditionally you would have done that with a store mock-up, now you can visualise it."

Unilever invites members of the public in to "shop" the virtual store, and measures how different category plans perform. A device scans the retina of the shopper, tracking the movement of the eye as they travel along the aisle, picking up products and placing them in the basket. At the end of the shop, a heat map displays the hot and cold spots on the fixture. They can also highlight areas by profitability and availability.

Given the value of such insights, it's not surprising that one retail customer has already used the virtual reality suite three times since it opened in March.

It's easy to imagine other potential applications for the technology. It is possible to zoom in on products and study them in minute detail, including ingredients information. An organisation such as the Food Standards Agency could use this to assess which form of nutritional labelling is most useful to consumers.

One can also imagine applications for online shopping. The limited capabilities of most home computers are a technical barrier to virtual reality online shopping, but merchandising manager Nick Widdowson says Unilever has had conversations with retailers about using the 3-D images on their websites.

We are also shown a physical mock-up of a laundry aisle all the fixtures are still constructed for real after they've been studied using the technology. "VR is fantastic at bringing things to life but there's no substitute for seeing things in person," says Widdowson.

Elsewhere in the CiiC is the Knowledge Centre. It works as the central hub for the facility and looks like a standard boardroom, but beneath the surface lies a powerful internet resource amassing retail wisdom from across the planet. "Increasingly, we're seeing consumers globally are similar rather than different," says James Simmons, VP of customer development.

We're shown marketing initiatives in South Africa and the Philippines that have driven footfall. We're obviously just a bunch of journalists, but after airing these initiatives Unilever personnel would normally discuss how they can be applied with their retail customers.

"It's the foundation of shopper knowledge that underpins the CiiC," says European CiiC director Vera Markl-Moser. "Our job is to translate the learning and apply it to the local marketplace."

The centre also houses the Meeting Room, where the conversation is more client-focused. Here Widdowson pulls up a planogram on a touchscreen device. Traditionally it takes three to four weeks to put together a planogram, but advances in technology allow Unilever to create one in a matter of minutes.

The latest software can tailor planograms to reflect different store sizes and formats, as well as regional and affluence variances it's common for Unilever to create about 20 to 30 different planograms for each retailer.

At the touch of a button, data can be pulled up to show how planograms perform in terms of category growth, profit per sq ft and availability.

"It allows us to tame the data," says Widdowson. "With the technology, you could do the principles in a day if you have the right people in the room."

Own-label and rival products are given the same scrutiny as Unilever's own goods. As with any category planning, objectivity is the key to bringing retailers along with you, says Widdowson.

"Retailers will see through anything that doesn't look category-fair. It's in nobody's interest not to show the truth as it is."

It is, however, in their interest to see how things pan out in the virtual world before making them reality which is where Unilever's new centre comes into its own.