Last weekend I stumbled across a photographic exhibition called Shutting Up Shop at the National Portrait Gallery.

The collection traced the history, over decades, of some idiosyncratic independent shops. One particular story engaged me – F Gedge’s contraceptive shop, run by a man who, after the Second World War, saw his business grow as the demand, range and quality of latex condoms improved dramatically.

To customers, he was a counsellor who shared his knowledge with them. They likened the shop to “a living entity” – a truly “engaging space”, one where the shopkeeper was part of their community.

It is this notion of interdependence between customer and retailer that will become a key issue that retailers – both real and virtual – will need to embrace if they are to attain and retain customer loyalty.

We are witnessing the emergence of a new world disorder. Historically, retailers controlled what products and services the customer sees, when they see them and what to think of them, through various formats and media.

More recently, while the increased number of channels has improved customer convenience, it has also strengthened the retailer’s control. However, the balance of power is shifting and customers have more tools than ever at their disposal. They are taking control.

In the past 10 years or so we have seen the customer being able to research in detail at their leisure, before making any purchase.

EBay has turned an ever-increasing number of customers into retailers. They are also becoming part of communities joined by common values and beliefs, capable of publishing their own shopping manifestos.

To top this, every individual has the ability, via social web sites, to become a brand in their own right – privacy is effectively extinct.

This new power, in this new world disorder, means that retailers and brands need to rethink how they connect and stay connected with customers.

Achieving this will mean engaging with customers in such a way that they become “co-creators” of the brand experience. Expect customers to want to shape the very fabric of the brand, its promise, content, delivery – every facet will need to be done and measured as a willing, enjoyable and mutually rewarding partnership.

This will lead to new freedom for retailers and their brands, resulting in customers who become brand activists, helping brands to live, breathe and grow in previously unthinkable ways.

Ultimately, this will enable retailers to enhance and increase – not control – dialogue with customers. Those retailers that work to increase and deliver this depth of engagement will thrive in the new world disorder.