A visit to Unilever’s Customer Insight & Innovation Centre highlights just how seriously it takes its role as a category captain.

The Ben & Jerry’s ice cream counter in reception caught my eye, but it was the state-of-the-art 3-D projection room at Unilever’s headquarters that really got me excited when I took a trip down to Surrey on Monday.

The FMCG giant has invested an undisclosed sum in a Customer Insight & Innovation Centre, which opened in February, as one of five facilities Unilever is setting up globally this year to encourage greater collaboration with its retailer customers.

What does this mean in practice? The idea is that buying, merchandising and planning teams from major retailers will be able to come and work with their Unilever peers at the facility to develop more effective category-level planograms, promotions and even store layouts.

The centre is laid out as an innocuous suite of meeting rooms, but behind the scenes there is lots of clever technology to make the facility as useful as possible. In a room laid out as a boardroom, a giant interactive whiteboard makes the display of planograms as simple as possible, and changes to plans under consideration can be emailed straight from the screen back to a retailer’s head office to get approval.

Another room is set up like a cinema, with a huge curved wall allowing 3-D versions of store layouts and planograms to be projected onto the screen. The virtual reality version of a store is tailored for each retailer that visits, and is lifelike enough that when the floor colour or signage is changed it is easy to identify which supermarket the virtual store has been mocked up for.

The engineer controlling the virtual environment can change layouts and planograms at the touch of a button, exploring various possibilities that would take hours to set up in a mock shop. There is also an eye-tracking station where retailers and product developers can examine what consumers’ eyes are drawn to in the virtual stores, or even what they look at when they pick up individual virtual products from the shelves.

But will it work? Is a bit of flash technology in some nice meeting rooms with Ben & Jerry’s ice cream on tap enough to encourage retailers that Unilever should be playing such an important role in their business planning?

Unilever expects the facility’s future success to be based on its early results. And the early results are encouraging. There have been seven visits by retailers so far – one retailer has already been in to use the facility three times. And there are two examples of a proposal being accepted during meetings of less than an hour that might have taken weeks for various people at Unilever and the retailer to have come to a conclusion on before.

For the moment, the facility is supporting Unilever’s ambition to be the category captain of choice for its major customers; 60% of its sales in the UK and Ireland come from its top four customers. But by the second half of this year Unilever expects to take its remit further, and be having good discussions about optimal store layouts, especially in the sweet spot of the convenience market.

Unilever is adamant that it will remain neutral in these discussions to encourage decisions that grow its categories and retailers’ sales overall. However inspiring the technology is, if it doesn’t it will quickly find itself facing a mutiny.