02/16/2012 12:48 pm ET Updated Apr 17, 2012

Is Brick-and-Mortar Shopping the Next Big Thing in Digital?

Are brick-and-mortar stores the next big thing in digital?

Last week, the internet was abuzz about Amazon -- the world's greatest virtual
store -- contemplating opening a real brick-and-mortar store.

Not 24 hours later, the rumors started flying around Google opening a store in

So I thought about other great online brands and their relationship to the real

Ebay has a thriving business of drop-off stores that support prospective sellers
in the physical world so it's easier to auction in the virtual one. Microsoft's retail
empire is nascent, but clearly on a growth curve.

And, of course, everyone's learning from Apple, whose stores feel like a wild
and wonderful physical manifestation of the internet -- open 24/7, loaded with
information, customer-driven interactivity, and, if you actually buy something, the
receipt goes straight to email. Just like you were buying online!

So what is it all about? With Facebook's IPO marking their huge coming of age,
is the rest of the world regressing?

In my view, it's all very simple, and actually hugely exciting. I believe we are
starting to see a productive, powerful convergence of the digital and physical

Why? Because while digital is everything -- just think of how it's transformed our
personal not to mention professional lives -- not everything is digital. We eat in
restaurants, we haven't abandoned real community for online community, and we
still like flesh-and-blood salespeople to say that suit's just right for us.

Along those lines, just last week, I got a beautifully handwritten note on a fine
piece of stationery from a prominent haberdashery in New York. They started off
by noting that I hadn't been in the store in a decade and that they "thought a brief
reminder would be nice." They then told me what I bought at my last visit, where
they have been located since 2004, and that they were celebrating their 122nd
year since their founding in Germany.

This couldn't be more analog, but really, it's not totally foreign to data

aggregations you might see coming from Amazon -- what you purchased, online
reminders and recommendations.

But for a time, marketers have created a great and artificial divide between
what's "traditional" and new, what's online or offline, what should be data-driven
or emotive.
The smart digital brands are taking what they know about the digital world and
bridging it back to the physical world. And, believe me, I am not, even for a
nano-second, suggesting that they are walking away from digital. I repeat --
digital is everything.

But I take my hat off to Google and Amazon, who are driving digital into Digital
Exponential -- where digital helps create a complete lifestyle, because
customers live both online and in the real world.

It's no small wonder that this Digital Exponential is percolating in the retail
space. Retail has always been about creating a special user experience that
begins before you enter the store and is supported at the store by an environment
that defines the brand, as well as by sales people who walk and talk it. And then
it's reinforced after the visit by everything from the shopping bag to the returns

That's why, even though people can order just about everything online, they
sometimes choose to patiently wait on lines just to get inside the doors. Ignoring
that customers sometimes opt for the tactile over the technological is a perilous
path, because the brand experience should be complete, whether it's rooted in
the physical or virtual world. Conversely, anyone who thinks it's enough to have a
customer "like" a Facebook page is missing the real power that comes out of the
culture of sharing in social networks.

Where will Digital Exponential find its perfect expression? No doubt through
mobile, which allows us to combine work and play, which helps us navigate both
through the virtual and physical worlds and which gives us a life experience, filled
with more possibility than ever.

These are really interesting times.