Marco Donati: Virtual Reality Turns Stores into Brand Hubs Where You Can Present Their History and Philosophy

Italian architect and designer Marco Donati, the founder of the renowned Storage Milano studio, authored the concept of Vermont’s exclusive multi-brand stores that the company had transposed into virtual reality in the Virtuplex.

Marco toured this 1:1 virtual twin in our 600 m2 VR space and discussed how useful it was to experience the store before its construction began, as well as how the concept of shopping in brick-and-mortar stores is being radically transformed. New technologies like VR open possibilities for new retail concepts, but people must seize these opportunities and utilize them, Marco believes. 

How was working with the Virtuplex on the virtual simulation of the Vermont brand stores?

Using virtual reality is unbelievably beneficial. It allows you to realize the dimensions of the entire space. You can see the surfaces of floors and furniture and see everything as a whole. Moreover, the mistakes you find in VR can be very easily repaired. The entire team can then work on how to make the surfaces look better, for example. You can easily take a step back in the project and revise it. It was a fascinating experience. It’s like walking through a department store before it’s built.

How does the use of VR influence the work of designers and architects?

It’s something completely new. It was our studio’s first experience of this kind in developing a project. We learned even while creating the model. Though we build everything in 3D in our heads, the virtual model offers a new and much more precise approach. Designers and architects thus have to learn how to professionally communicate their projects in the proposal phase and must be much more precise and technical because you can look at the design from above, below, and even walk around it. Simply put, virtual reality allows you to achieve a much better product before construction even begins.

There is a lot of talk about new technologies changing the way we shop. What’s your opinion?

It’s a revolution, but it also brings problems for brands. People primarily buy brands, and secondarily specific clothing. Shopping is shifting to online. Selling fashion has more or less been the same for the last 100 or 200 years. That’s why brand representatives have come to us and said: We need a change; we need to make the store an experience. They want us to find a solution and bring people back into stores. They don’t realize it’s not just about interior design. The interior is just a box. We also need to design the shopping ritual.

As designers, it’s easy to make changes, but changing the concept of the store takes longer. A store isn’t just sales: It represents the spirit of the brand. Shopping online is very easy, but you don’t have that first-hand experience. We thus have to seek out what experience we can offer customers besides shopping. We’re adding seating, relaxation, and entertainment. The brick-and-mortar store and the eshop can mutually complement one another. For example, you can try clothes on in a store, select the right size, pay, but you don’t take the goods home right away. When you get home, the delivered goods will be there waiting for you. Changes to the flow of customers in stores is also part of the changing shopping culture.

What you’re describing is literally stepping outside of the box. Do you think new technologies will help break the boundaries of the shopping experience from just simple architecture and design, bringing the changes that brands are demanding?

Absolutely! They will completely change the way goods are offered to shoppers. Naturally the internet will bring you into the store, but all the possibilities digital technologies offer have yet to be tapped. I can imagine VR being incorporated into the sales process itself and the shopping experience as such. For example: You can put out on display just a few examples of a particular t-shirts, maybe in white or any other neutral colour. We don’t have to put all the designs on display to try them on because we can change and pick from different ones in VR.

Do you know what happens when you don’t have to have a store packed with product? You can minimalize the sales floor space and instead invest into the experience and unique customer services. Stores thus become a hub where you can present the history of the brand and its philosophy. That’s not easy on the internet. Sales are increasingly more about telling a story and you have to train personnel to be able to transfer that to the customer. In terms of the brand, the transformation of the store goes hand in hand with the transformation of the approach to sales. You’re not changing the space where you sell, but you also have to change the services offered because they and your staff are the “something extra.”