In case there was any doubt that the Internet and e-commerce are affecting consumer behavior, this year's Super Bowl, dubbed SuperBowl.com by some, put that doubt to rest. The overwhelming emphasis of television spots drawing website traffic showed marketers no longer underestimate the power of new media.

The Computer Industy Almanac reports that 110 million Americans have Internet access and by 2002, 490 million people around the world will be web users. The Online Retail Index from the National Retail Federation and Forrester Research, in conjunction with Greenfield Online, found that consumers spent $2.8 billion online in January 2000.

For retail store operators who are already competing with trends such as "cocooning" - a term defining today's busy workforce who don't want to leave the house once they get home - and the time constraints facing consumers, the Internet poses new challenges as well as opportunities. How will retailers drive customers into their stores when many purchases can be made online?

Look for retail stores to use strong sensory themes as a way of replacing the high-tech isolation of online shopping with the high-touch interaction that social beings seek.

Feelings count Theming recognizes that the store sets the stage for feelings and attitudes a customer associates with the brand. In other words, the store is to the customer what the set is to a movie or theater audience. Store theming can increase traffic, break down barriers to buying, pump up merchandise appeal, and solidify market niche penetration by enhancing the sensory appeal of the brand.

Similarly, store personnel can be likened to the actors in a play. The way store clerks interact with shoppers is critical. Theming assumes the desire for social interaction and a positive shopping experience drives customers to the store.

What are the tools of sensory stimulation? Light and sound are the special effects associated with theater, and they are integral to retail store theming. Another highly effective tool is color. Color adds drama, appeals to fantasy and imagination, and can even transmit emotional cues ranging from luxury to comfort. Color also can enhance wayfinding by directing traffic, visually separating departments, establishing landmarks, and offering visual relief and focal points.

Paint provides a budget-considerate resource for color. Dramatic or subtle faux finish effects created using paint can hide flaws and bring interest and sophistication to otherwise neutral backdrops. Historically, paint has proven to be the most cost-effective and easily implemented way to create alluring color schemes for retail environments. But will paint continue its reign in the new millennium?

Research indicates that not only will paint be a finish of choice for most retail environments, but it also will likely take on a greater role in furthering the goals of store branding and theming. Because paint is both cost-effective and easy to apply, retailers can update their color schemes often. In general, stores should count on updating accent colors at least every three to five years.

And since paint can be so easily applied to a wide range of surfaces, it can enable a color scheme to be used consistently throughout the store, improving store recognizability. Smart use of paint can even allow architectural shortcomings, like exposed pipes, beams, trusses, or ductwork, to become part of the theme's design. Insightful designers even use paint colors to brighten subdued lighting, perhaps providing an alternative to a complete lighting redesign.

Paint technology advances have made new paint finishes both performance-appropriate and aesthetically attractive. Wipe-clean flat finishes, for example, reduce the repaint schedule by being easily washed. New, low-odor coatings minimize downtime needed for painting, making touch-ups easier and less costly.

The future looks bright What paint colors will be preferred in years to come? Expect fewer of the hard-edged techno-brights that presaged the coming turn of the century. Instead look for more interesting, realistic tones that are complex and flexible. These colors fall primarily into two categories: rich, opulent and crisp on the one hand, and veiled or mystical colors on the other.

Consumer interest in the Asian lifestyle heralds the ascendancy of rich reds and complex yellows. Trends also are shifting away from green and toward green-blues, blues and purples. The result is a predominantly cool color palette balanced by yellows tinged with green and orange, and by full-bodied red touched with brown. Visual merchandising will be influenced by consumers looking for colors that are more expressive, more personal and more reflective of their personalities.

In the apparel market, acceptance, comfort and lifestyle are the key emotional motivators. For women's apparel retailers, color and design can carve out separate upscale, high-tech salons, or intimate boutiques within the same retail space. Complex neutrals and rich, deep tone shades will predominate.

Men's clothing stores will reflect consumers' preference for rugged comfort, confidence, and either elegance or urban trendiness. Store designs must be strong, crisp and well-detailed using colors ranging from muted gold and natural woods to creamy beiges and warm reds. To appeal to teens' strong need for both individuality and peer acceptance, equally strongly defined market niches are the keys to store theming and branding. Children's stores will continue to appeal to fantasy and the imagination. But deep, bold and more sophisticated tropical shades will begin to supplant traditional primary colors.

For book and music stores, clean spaces will be enhanced with innovative signage, colorful murals, life-size storybook scenes, comfortable salon-like niches and interactive research and listening stations. Bright accent colors work well for these markets, against a backdrop of warm neutrals.

Electronics stores will go home-like with wood floors and fixtures, while home-furnishings departments will go high-tech with microprocessors becoming part of everything from coffee maker to blenders.

Department stores will bring the outdoors in, not only with skylights, sculptures and mosaics that reflect natural elements, but also with outdoor architecture such as directional signage on floors and billboard-like graphics. Niche market stores directed at female athletes, upscale travelers and others also will use energetic neutrals highlighted by bold accents and strong graphics.

Every element of a store's design - including the colorful impact and stimulus that paint brings - should reinforce, remind and assist consumers in the purchasing decision. But with e-commerce on the upswing, paint, color and theme also play an important new role in store design - to enhance the shopping experience for consumers.