Mass Customization: Let Your Customers Have It Their Way
For all of McDonald's dominance of the fast food scene, Burger King had it right years ago with the slogan, "Have it your way." Custom products are becoming an increasingly important product strategy. At least, that's what a recent survey of 1,000 online consumers by Bain & Company suggests.
A Trend, Years in the Making
Yes, people have predicted the coming of mass customization for years now. First came bespoke Levi's jeans, M&Ms with your own printed message, and custom images on credit cards. But then there are more recent (and more mundane) examples: Go to LL Bean, order one of many products, and have your initials added. That's customization. Want your own fancy coffee? Go crazy at a Starbucks. They'll make it, no matter how much the barista shudders at the strange combination.
So what's going to finally make customization a mass trend? Dropping the assumption that it has to be a trend and that everyone will do it. If you make bolts, people want standard items that will work with the nuts they have. Sometimes off-the-rack is the best solution for a customer.
The Potential Opportunity
Mass customization doesn't have to be a trend to offer an opportunity to differentiate yourself from competitors and boost margins. That's the point of the Bain study, which found that people are warming to the idea of customized products.
Although fewer than 10 percent had actually purchased customized products or options, between 25 percent and 30 percent were interested. "While it is hard to gauge the overall potential of customization, if 25 percent of online sales of footwear were customized, that would equate to a market of $2 billion per year," Bain wrote.
It's not as though only giants can offer customization. FashionPlaytes is a young business that lets girls order customized clothing. Any auto or motorcycle shop that builds custom vehicles would be a clear example. Click through this slideshow for more examples of pioneers of product customization.
Customization is an old service that has a chance for some new appreciation. Customization can tie a customer closer to you and give them a reason not to do business with competitors who don't do things the customer's way. And there are other benefits, as Bain points out:
With the proliferation of social media and online publishing, styles and trends now change faster than ever. Customization helps companies gain insights from customized designs and fine-tune products to stay one step ahead of the competition. With each design choice, customers share real-time shopper preferences that go well beyond what they would say in a focus group. For example, what Brooks Brothers learns from its customers in one season is used to help it deliver the next season's product line.
Bain offers some tips along with the study, such as determining what level of customization you need to provide, considering a smooth return process if necessary, and knowing the strategic value you seek--whether marketing panache, customer retention, or improved margins.
But the biggest tip is not to wait until this becomes an official trend and someone gives you permission to undertake customization. Look today whether there is business value all your very own that you've been ignoring.
ERIK SHERMAN | Columnist
Erik Sherman's work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch.