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By Michael D'Antonio

Pick a brand. Any brand. What do you like best about it? Most people with a strong brand affinity can point to a tactile or emotional experience that describes how that brand makes them feel. That experience is the product of a thousand small gestures – a series of brand affirmations at each customer touchpoint, which includes social media, traditional advertising, event marketing, point-of-sale, retail experience, word of mouth and so on.

While we may love the convenience of shopping online, most of us don’t have the same connection with, for example, Amazon, as we do with the people at our local Apple store, favorite hair salon or Starbucks. This gets at one of the most defining human conditions – we remain fundamentally social animals. Ironically, people have turned to social networking to hook up with each other online. Virtually! But does it fulfill that basic need? And does that even matter if the end purpose of branding is to facilitate sales?

Clearly, the ubiquity and scope of social media are irresistible. And for simple retail transactions, online shopping is tough to beat. But for most of us, digital experiences haven’t displaced the urge to touch, sample, sniff, taste, examine, thump and listen to a product. In car jargon, we still want to kick the tires.

Will this change as the Millennials gain market dominance? One of the most interesting insights to emerge in the wake of post-digital branding is that it’s not enough to market a brand online, in a strictly virtual arena. In fact, if we can agree that a brand’s experience is defined by the collection of all its touchpoints, why would a marketer want to leave any potential connections “untouched”? This seems like a no-brainer. Chalk it up to the theory of “rising expectations,” but in general, when we offer people something more, they don’t say, “okay, this works, so you can take that other thing away.” People always want more and more.  Just because consumers have embraced online shopping, doesn’t mean they’re ready to give up on the brick-and-mortar retailing experience.“Virtual” is cool and convenient, but nothing replaces “real.”

Consumers tell us that they seek a tactile, 3-D encounter with their favorite brands. According to the Seamless Retail Study by Accenture, 49 percent of consumers believe that the best thing retailers can do to improve the shopping experience is to better integrate in-store, online and mobile shopping channels. Make pricing and product selection the same. Make the transfer seamless. And 89 percent of consumers said it is important for retailers to let them shop for products in the way that is most convenient for them, no matter which sales channel they choose.

The key insight here is that many shoppers are using the local retail presence to facilitate an online purchase. The research shows that 73 percent of respondents participate in “showrooming,” the practice of browsing in the store and then buying online. And 88 percent said they participated in “webrooming,” or browsing first on the internet and then buying in-store. That’s why many bricks-and-mortar stores are fighting back against the likes of Amazon by leveraging their physical, local accessibility within the community.  Need it right now? Buy it online and we’ll have it ready for local pick up in our store in an hour. Need a different size than you found in our store? Let us help you find exactly what you want and we’ll ship it to you, no extra charge.

Brands win when they can engage all of the senses and create a space in which the face-to-face experience amplifies its inherent value. Apple stores are always popular because their Genius Bar offers real value – experts who listen, take notes and answer specific questions with live product demonstrations. Many new car dealers are hiring local high school students to help customers with their cars’ high-tech infotainment systems and telematics. And even, the quintessential online dating service, has started hosting “offline” events where singles can meet socially out in the real world. Online shopping is here to stay. But smart retailers and OEMs are learning that physical experiences can crystalize emotional connections and position their brands as living, personally relevant consumer assets. We may feel relieved to quickly dispatch a purchase on Amazon. But we’ll remember the sales associate who found us a more flattering jacket, the barista who always remembers our favorite brew and the corner merchant who sets a bowl of water outside for passing pets. It’s not a big deal, but it’s real, it’s memorable and it leaves us with a smile.