I remember at the FMI retail conference in Chicago in 1995 hearing a US visionary say we'd look back in 2000 and think: "Wasn't life simple five years ago?" I doubt if many of us believed it then, but we have come to realise that food retailing was at that time fairly one dimensional with a single channel to market and a strong focus on product. Now we are striving to regain our lost passion for customer focused retailing. We're keen to listen, and what better test could we have had than the once in a lifetime opportunity of millennium Christmas, when pundits predicted customers behaving totally out of character? In this unprecedented festive season, who could have accurately foreseen the true demand for champagne or frozen lobster, the stockpiling because of long closures over the New Year weekend, or the out of stocks when stores reopened again? So many opportunities for high margin sales, then such heavy discounting on unsold millennium branded stock. Everyone chants the customer focus mantra but, like dieting in January, it's easy to say and difficult to do. The highly refined systems we've put in place over the last decade are now a positive barrier to flexibility, to fast consumer response, and to new ideas, products and services. Perhaps the answer is to ask how retailers would have tackled this in 1899. Staff then knew their best customers personally. They chatted with them and tried to source individual treats for their turn of century celebrations. Customer numbers may have changed from hundreds to millions, but we can still identify top tier customers for each store and ask what they want. Instead of relying on merchandising genius to stock the shelves, we could extrapolate out from the desires of our best customers. We are at the beginning of a long journey towards real customer intimacy. We never capitalised on the millennium Christmas because we never really asked our customers what they wanted. {{NEWS }}