The explosion of e-commerce and the globalization of products and services represent enormous challenges in retail. E-commerce offers unlimited choice and access so extreme that furniture showrooms now exist in cyberspace and cars are bought sight unseen. In the future, consumers will don virtual reality glasses and test-drive products from home.

Simultaneously, increasing global homogenization of products, services and facilities robs consumers of new experiences. If everything is available over the Internet and retail looks and feels the same the world over, why go out at all? More than ever, consumers need a compelling answer. An integrated approach that dramatically enhances the consumer's experience is the solution. It must go beyond new bells and whistles or glitzy high-tech novelties and be rooted in a brand's fundamental promise.

Taking the first step Getting customers through the door for the first time takes tremendous effort. What keeps them coming back? It's a given that price, service and product must meet or surpass expectations. Yet every other aspect of the experience - interior design, exterior architecture, packaging, identity systems, graphics, photography, traffic flow, visual merchandising and connection to the web - also must reinforce consumers' desire to enter the environment.

The atmosphere of any space should reaffirm the underlying brand. The physical entity - whether retail outlet, service center or company office - becomes the logical nexus where advertising, marketing and brand identity coalesce into a coherent, three-dimensional statement about a company, its brands and values.

In one project, Nike sought to define its image in 16 Asian countries. From India to Korea, creative directors worked to convey the essence of the Nike brand yet remain relevant and functional in Asia's fast-moving, heavily trafficked retail environments. Every country challenged us with a different culture and level of consumer sophistication.

The image design team extended Nike's brand equity through the use of common elements in fixturing and identity. But because some standard materials, such as the clear maple basketball flooring used in Niketowns, wouldn't hold up to Asia's tremendous foot traffic, appropriate local materials were incorporated that communicated Nike's image of technology and authenticity. Trying to make one design fit all situations, without regard for the local consumer, could have tarnished the brand equity.

Beyond the physical environment Not every experience is simply visual. Customer service and a personal approach also contribute to creating a great environmental experience. For years, the rental car business has focused on the business traveler, ignoring one important segment of the market - the vacation traveler.

Alamo differentiated itself by appealing to that underserved population, but its facilities did not meet the needs and expectations of those very customers. The brand's promise - a vacation-friendly rental car company - needed to be realized.

Unlike the traditional rental car experience, which often feels like the last hassle before "getting there," a stop at the new Alamo!, with changing rooms, a navigation center for trip planning and the convenience of retail travel shops, signals that the fun part of a vacation has begun. The message communicated by the design is that Alamo! is where time off really begins.

Retail outlets frequently underperform their potential promise. Elements that might have great appeal to consumers remain undiscovered and unexploited.

A.G. Ferrari, an upscale chain of delis in the San Francisco area, demonstrates how an integrated approach can take a brand to a higher orbit. Originally known as Ultra Lucca, the company was highly regarded for its authentic feel and high-quality products. But the name Ultra Lucca sounded more like a laundry detergent than a specialty-food emporium. A new approach - built on the heritage that began with founder A.G. Ferrari and continues today with family members who still travel to Italy in search of new products - was developed by architects, graphic designers and brand consultants who encouraged the company to reinvent itself from the ground up.

Renamed A.G. Ferrari Foods, the change ensures that the stores, products, graphics and packaging all work together to leverage the authenticity of an Italian family with a passion for great food. The food is put on a pedestal. A.G. Ferrari's customers leave the stores feeling great about patronizing what is really an old-fashioned neighborhood enterprise.

No doubt, traditional retailing will continue to face pressure from new markets and new technologies. The best way to remain relevant and competitive is to build brand identity into every element of the retail experience - from the ground up.