Consumers have the power - and they know it. They know where to get the lowest prices, the best sales, the selection they want, presented where they want it and how they want it. They have become smart, ornery shoppers who have retailers twisted around their little fingers.

There are so many places to shop for the same merchandise at whatever price and whatever level of service customers want. The consumer who wants a white cotton shirt can spend anywhere from $9 to $900 depending on his or her mood, design aesthetic or penchant for value on any given day. They can buy the white shirt in a mall, strip center, supercenter or discounter, or from a catalog or online.

Income level has little to do with what brand they buy or where they buy it - except perhaps if the shirt is $900! High-income shoppers see it as a badge of honor to pick up a great little cotton shirt at Target for $13.99. Low-income shoppers feel the same way about buying a great little cotton shirt at Dillard's on sale at $19.99.

But this is not just about apparel. It's about cosmetics, home furnishings, food, electronics, computers, even cars. Shopping has become more democratic, more egalitarian, regardless of category.

Many retailers have come to focus on the all-defining Price to catch this wave. As a result, the look and feel of much of their merchandise and the atmosphere of their stores have become less and less distinctive.

In fact, the world of shopping has become like one big commodity shopping trip, like going to the supermarket to do the family's weekly grocery shopping. Milk, bread, soda, white shirt, mascara, bath towels. Easy to do, practical, mostly efficient ... and absolutely devoid of emotion. That's part of the reason consumers today are fickle, and why most retailers struggle to build a loyal customer base.

The lack of differentiation between one store and another, one brand and another, one mall and another, is astounding. The emotional quotient that once defined a great shopping experience has, for the most part, disappeared.

There was a time when, if you asked a group of women to talk about what beauty products they wore, the most heated and excited conversation would ensue. They would chatter on about the latest lipstick colors and formulas, great mascaras for thickening, fabulous new moisturizer, sexy new fragrance. It was hard to stop them. Not today.

All the emotion has gone out of it, at least for those who shop in places such as drugstores, department stores, mass merchandisers. Everything looks the same, sounds the same, is merchandised the same, has too much service or too little service - nothing particularly new, nothing exciting. As a result, foundation, mascara and lipstick just get added to the shopping list with the milk and cereal.

Fortunately, there are companies that have come to recognize the danger in a price-driven, emotionless shopping experience. These companies recognize that in order to succeed in the third millennium, they must take "commodity" out of shopping and add back emotion, relationship, experience and excitement if they are to build a loyal, profitable customer base.

Some of the best examples are food retailers that have found ways to make a weekly shopping chore into a dynamic experience full of wonderful smells and flavors, great merchandising and the adventure of finding something new for dinner.

Wegmans Food Markets in upstate New York and Pennsylvania, Ukrop's in Virginia, eatZi's Markets in Texas, and Loblaws in Canada have each turned the weekly grocery grind or the what-will-I-cook-for-dinner-tonight into an emotional (positively emotional) experience.

They begin by offering customers an intriguing selection of both basic and exotic food fare, presented in dramatic yet approachable fashion. Color-blocking, cross-merchandising, easy-to-find signing. Pasta, bread, cheese, beautifully displayed in wooden crates, old-fashioned barrels. Whatever suits the season. Wonderful smells of fresh bread baking, coffee roasting, clean green vegetable smells, and fragrant flowers.

There are the expected savings, coupons and frequent-shopper programs. But that's not the beginning and the end. It's just part of it. There's service if needed, samples to taste, help with menus for dinner, cooking classes ifyou have the time and inclination.

These food retailers show us every day how t o translate a commodity business into an emotional one. In doing so, they have taken the mundane experience of food shopping and moved it onto a higher emotional plane.

Fortunately, other companies have taken note. Old Navy, for example, sells some of the most basic apparel one could imagine: jeans, T-shirts, shirts, socks. And yet if you've shopped in an Old Navy store, you know that it doesn't feel like you're buying basics at all.

It's all about humor, fun, attitude. T-shirts wrapped like lamb chops and merchandised in meat cases (really), old-fashioned telephone booths where customers can listen to a CD, coffee bar, retro advertising with the cast of "Gilligan's Island" and that dog ... ! Old Navy has made it clear to customers that it knows there are plenty of places to buy jeans today, but if they come to Old Navy, they'll have a giggle, a cup of coffee and get a great price along with Old Navy jeans.

Bath & Body Works beauty stores, Illuminations candle stores and catalog, dELiA*s catalog are some other examples of how smart companies have put emotion back into what was an ordinary experience shopping for shampoo, soap, candles or teenagers' clothes.

Companies that continue to drain the emotion out of the experience they offer customers will only lose as we move into the third millennium. Consumers demand more than the fundamentals of price, convenience and repetitive selection to be loyal today. Only retailers that recognize that will win tomorrow.

A recent visit to a suburban mall said it all. At 3 o'clock on a Saturday afternoon, the only stores that were truly busy with customers were the Illuminations candle store and the Au Bon Pain and Dean & Deluca restaurants. For those who get the message, welcome to the third millennium.