Remember Cheers, the bar where ‘everybody knows your name’? Much of the success of that show was rooted in the deep longing to be recognised, to belong.

Retailers and brand owners can learn a lot from that. It sometimes seems that communication to the public is still viewed as a one-way street, with the corporations shouting from the cliff-top to the masses below. Even the use of social media and loyalty schemes is frequently blatantly to the corporate self-interest.

Consider the phrase ‘loyalty card’. Firstly, there’s an implication that a customer somehow owes a duty of loyalty and this is some kind of sop. It’s the same thinking that perpetuates the nonsense of the concept of brand loyalty.

Secondly, I have yet to meet anyone whose actions are dictated by the minute payback that a grocery retailer’s loyalty card delivers. Usually the reaction is ‘that’s the least they can do’, coupled with a suspicion that they are using the data in some nefarious way. As The Grocer reported in an analysis on 6 April, Aldi topped the ‘loyalty’ chart without the use of a card. Point taken.

“If people feel a part of something, they will take part in it more often”

The big supermarkets are in a stand-off on price. So, how to differentiate? Supermarkets are not pleasant places to be. Most of us want to get in and out with the minimum of time and expense. But we are the same people who expect high levels of service elsewhere.

Restaurants, travel agents and hairdressers know they will lose a customer if they fail to deliver the right level of welcome and service. People will walk past several bars or coffee shops to go their preferred one. But supermarkets seem unable to escape the monolithic, impersonal presence ascribed to them.

There are straws in the wind. Morrisons’ Market Street adds humanity. Tesco and Asda heat babyfood and give free nappies in the changing room. Waitrose and others have wine chillers.

But it can go much further. An article in last weekend’s Independent on Sunday highlighted the growing success of ‘gamification’, the art of emulating online gaming’s ability to lock people in through encouraging deeper involvement. If people feel a part of something, they will take part in that activity, at that location, more often.

As online shopping rises inexorably, and with the older generation, who are used to and expect a level of service, holding a lot of the disposable wealth, service is a true differentiator in hard times when prices can move no lower.

There is a need to radically rethink the definition of service. It must move away from accountancy-based ‘what can we afford?’ to people-based ‘what do they really want?’

Claire Nuttall is a founding partner of Thrive