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The explosion of online shopping makes it seem like brick-and-mortar stores are going the way of phone booths and milk deliveries. Not so, suggests Bryan Gonterman , vice president and general manager of AT&T New York/New Jersey Market. In his keynote address at NJBIA’s Small Business Summit today, Gonterman encouraged retailers to think about their stores as another component of a customer’s overall experience, said stores have a vital role to play in digital commerce.

“We have a saying: Retail distribution is not going away; crappy retail distribution is going away,” Gonterman said.

Gonterman said online shopping and in-store distribution can complement each other if they give customers what they want and need. Gonterman calls it the omni-channel approach.

Industry research shows that 3 out of 4 customers want to interact online, Gonterman says, and 56 cents of every dollar of sales are impacted by the digital medium.  At the same time, however, 35 percent of online customers actually want to pick up their purchases in the store.

The common denominator can be summed up in a word: convenience. Stores and websites need to work together seamlessly to make it as easy as possible for the customer to make a purchase. It’s why Starbucks lets customers order coffee with an app.  It’s why online giant Amazon is creating physical distribution centers, while successful retail stores like Nordstrom are investing heavily in digital distribution.

“It all goes back to the overall focus of customer convenience: the customer interacting with us on their terms, not ours,” Gonterman said.

AT&T began looking at what their stores can provide that the Internet cannot. With its electronic devices, ATT&T’s staff can provide important customer service and educate customers about their products. Gonterman says AT&T empowers its sales consultants to solve whatever problem a customer has. Staff is also trained to greet customers warmly, call them by name and make sure they know their trip to the store is appreciated.

Gonterman warned that businesses should be aware of how people react to technology. When sales workers hear “digital distribution” and investment in alternative channels, they worry about losing sales and the commissions that come with them. AT&T had to change its compensation structure so that a customer service rep who talks to a customer in an AT&T store will still get compensated even if that sale is made online.

“We recognize that every customer is unique, that their issues are unique and we make sure we address that as such, so we don’t turn into just a vending machine.”