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Virtual reality Circle K convenience store offers innovative learning experience for Ted Rogers School retail students

May 04, 2023
A photo illustration of Dr. Janice Rudakowski's virtual reality convenience store with task prompt
Photo illustration of virtual reality convenience store

A business student wanders into a Circle K convenience store, grabs a bag of Doritos and a Red Bull off the shelf. Up pops a box asking them to observe the pricing and shelf placement strategy. Task completed, the student takes the item to the cashier, and pulls off a VR headset.

This isn’t the same Circle K you shopped at as a child. 

It’s a shopping simulation that undergraduate retail management students in next year’s winter semester will be able to experience, as part of an innovative, immersive virtual reality program, aimed at helping them succeed in their careers. 

“There are so many different advances that are happening in the ways that we teach,” said Dr. Janice Rudkowski, assistant professor at Ted Rogers School of Retail Management.

“Virtual reality and immersive learning are grounded in looking at ways to continue to engage students and align what's happening in the classroom with what's happening in the retail industry.”

Rudkowski, who teaches undergraduate retail management courses, is the project lead on an eCampus Ontario funded project, Category Management Principles: An Immersive VR Convenience Store Learning Experience. The project, in collaboration with global convenience store chain Circle K, elearning company Xpert VR and category management consultant Inez Blackburn, will implement VR technology into the classroom in the form of a virtual Circle K convenience store. It is funded by eCampus Ontario, a provincially-funded non-profit organization which supports development of online learning across the province (external link)  and develops state-of-the art courses and programs. 

Category management, a strategic practice where retailers organize products into categories and treat them like separate business units to deliver profits and customer value, isn’t taught in undergraduate business degrees, Rudkowski said. “It's something that you really don't learn until you get out into the industry and you start working in a retail head office or if you're working in fast moving consumer packaged goods.” 

Rudkowski and Leslie Gordon, director of proprietary brands at Circle K, decided on a convenience store simulation because it would catch the interest of students, help them develop their critical thinking and decision-making skills and put into practice core category management principles of pricing, promotion, product and placement. 

“We wanted the students to think about the decision making that goes into those category management decisions,” Rudkowski said. “Why is this product promoted and this product is not promoted? Why is this product on sale and this product's regular price? What is the strategy? Why is Red Bull sitting right next to Monster in the energy drink category? What promotions are happening in the store?”

Prior to the VR convenience store, Rudkowski and Gordon collaborate on an experiential learning project (with Circle K and Red Bull) for Rudkowski’s category management course within the School of Retail Management at the Ted Rogers School, which enables students to analyze real Nielsen data and apply category management principles. 

Gordon, herself a TMU graduate of applied arts, nutrition and food science, was fascinated by the idea of a virtual store and the opportunity to provide the students with more experiential, hands-on learning, regardless of where they were in Ontario. “When you're in the virtual reality store, it's like you're transported into another world,” she said. “It's just thrilling to be part of that.”

Circle K wanted the store to be as realistic as possible, and provided the store layouts, planograms, promotional signage, and many of the in-store elements, including fixtures, branding and product categories including salty snacks, beverages and confectionery. The virtual reality experience is a fully-branded, immersive experience with real national brands, like Red Bull and Coca-Cola, and Circle K’s private label brands, too. The VR store has all of the typical product categories one would expect to see in a Circle K like snacks, beverages and confectionery. Everything was designed to look as close as possible to what consumers see in a Circle K store. 

“Convenience is a big industry in Canada, and I think sometimes it gets overlooked in the retail landscape,” Gordon explained.

Circle K (external link, opens in new window)  is a global leader in convenience and fuel retail, operating in 24 countries and territories, with more than 14,300 stores and 122,000 people employed throughout its network. There are over 680 Circle K stores in Ontario alone. 

“Guided by our vision of being the world’s preferred destination for convenience and mobility, we are always exploring innovative and differentiated solutions that make our customers’ lives a little easier every day,” Gordon explained. 

“This VR experience puts convenience stores on students’ radar as an opportunity for their futures. There are so many opportunities, not just in retail management, but real estate, accounting, finance or marketing, and I don't know that students are aware of that.”

In one simulation, students can view the store, its layout and categories of products either with or without examples of heat maps that were developed using the latest eye tracking technology. In another simulation, students have the opportunity to wander through the virtual convenience store with on-screen prompts to complete shopping tasks, including grabbing various products off the shelves like energy drinks, confectionery and salty snacks, then buying the products via a cashier-less check out.

Going forward, this VR component will be integrated into the Winter 2024 category management course, and available to all instructors at Ontario’s publicly funded colleges and universities through eCampus Ontario’s Learn Online Portal (external link) 

There's also interest from some other institutions (University of Toronto and George Brown) to bring the VR experience into their classrooms. 

The VR Convenience Store Learning Experience was a 10-month project. The application to eCampus Ontario was submitted in January 2022, and received funding in April 2022. All of the project deliverables had to have been completed by February 28, 2023. Rudkowski says that it was a tremendous amount of work to build out a virtual reality environment. 

“I've learned that it is important just to continue to innovate and continue to think about how to engage students, make sure that what you're teaching is relevant, that it actually provides some tangible skills, marketable skills that ultimately can help them to launch their careers, but also expose them to careers perhaps that they hadn't thought of, that they may not be getting a lot of exposure to,” she said. 

The Category Management Principles: An Immersive VR Convenience Store Learning Experience (external link)  is available to colleges and universities in Ontario through eCampus Ontario.