Lately, we keep hearing about the impact of virtual reality (VR) on shopping and retail. Whether it's a VR fashion show or virtual changing rooms, or even the world's first virtual reality department store, VR is enjoying a wild ride at the moment.

But far less is known about how VR is changing retail shopping behind the scenes. Forward-thinking businesses are using VR today to improve "shopability" and glean insights on shopper behaviors and needs. This kind of data crunching may not be VR's most glamorous application, but it's certainly proving effective. In fact, 74 percent of retailers say they'll lean on VR in the coming years to improve customer experience and gather data. It's already clear that there's a huge opportunity for businesses to use VR to improve the shopping journey before their customers even reach their store.

Chicago-based VR company InContext Solutions is in the forefront of VR innovators for retail business. Recently closing out a $15.2 million funding round led by Intel Capital and Beringea -- and with a roster of the world's largest brands and retailers, including Nestle, Smucker's, Kellogg's, Anheuser-Busch, and Walgreens -- InContext's cloud-based VR software is helping revolutionize the B-to-B retail space. Their enterprise VR software gives retailers and brands the tools they need to evaluate ideas before taking anything to market.

As Tracey Wiedmeyer, Chief Technology Officer at InContext explains: "By building hyper-realistic 3D virtual simulations for in-store testing, VR is enabling retailers and brand managers to make faster, smarter and more profitable decisions on how they market both their products and their stores."

Reshaping Market Research

The world of retail has always revolved around knowing your shopper. What products are they looking for? What grabs their attention? Traditionally, this type of market research is done through focus groups, purchase intent surveys and shopalongs -- all of which are either time-consuming or don't necessarily reflect actual shopper behavior. VR allows retailers and manufacturers to conduct shopping simulations and follow-up surveys to learn behavioral and attitudinal data in near-real time.

"VR allows retailers and brand managers to test new product assortments, aisle configurations, advertising, and signage. Through virtual shopping exercises, we learn about shopper behaviors and see which concepts will create the greatest engagement," says Wiedmeyer.

Fewer "Hunch-based" Decisions

With VR, making decisions on gut instinct alone is a thing of the past. New concepts can be designed, tested and presented in a VR environment before requiring a physical prototype, thereby eliminating a great deal of the financial risk associated with presenting something new.

"The smartest retailers and brands are using VR to carefully curate their products, researching what will return the most success before placing anything on the shelves," Wiedmeyer explains.

Large and small CPG companies alike can benefit from VR's ability to move faster and be more affordable than traditional market research methods, giving them the luxury of actually knowing which of their concepts will work before allocating financial and material resources.

Brand and Retailer Collaboration

VR streamlines the communication and execution process for rolling out a new store design or product placement by providing a collaborative platform between teams. No wonder that the VR market is projected to reach more than $120B by 2020. Brands and retailers who aren't already collaborating via VR should strongly consider the switch, as VR is quickly becoming a vital tool.

"A category team can ideate the best placement for a new product, and send the concept to the shopper marketing team that can see notes and add relevant signage," says Wiedmeyer, "The entire concept can then be viewed by executives and retail partners who decide what should be tested further. VR eliminates the constant back and forth among specialist teams, and greatly reduces timelines, by streamlining the crucial collaboration process."

VR is already becoming a crowded space, with over 200 companies valued at $13B participating. VR allows users to create proven solutions while working faster and smarter than ever before. Today's forward-thinking retailers are peering through their VR headsets, driving new changes in the way we act as consumers, consider purchases and ultimately, shop.