Several times a year, in a high-ceilinged workroom in Maine, Thos. Moser Cabinetmakers hosts the DIY equivalent of a yearbook signing session. Employees in T-shirts and jeans heft tables, chairs, and dressers onto platforms and turn them upside down or onto their sides. With felt-tips, the customers who built the pieces inscribe their names on the bottoms or insides. Then the woodworkers who assisted them sign as well. Spouses and children crowd around to watch. Sometimes there are tears.
The signing ceremony culminates each weeklong installment of Thos. Moser's customer-in-residence program, a part of a niche movement of consumers building what they buy. While some companies allow customers to design products online, most such goods are still put together by professionals. But a few businesses are starting to invite customers deeper into the manufacturing process. It may not create rapid growth, but it can increase loyalty. Working side by side with employees to sand down a surfboard or lay brake lines in a car, customers develop personal relationships with these businesses, based not just on the pleasure that comes from owning a beautiful product, but also on the pride they take in having built something with their own hands.
Competitors argue that people who can do something themselves won't pay for it. But advocates say customers are looking for an experience, not an extended pursuit. "To invite customers in to shape the product they will ultimately own is the highest level of respect," says John Gerzema, CEO of BAV Consulting.
Customer builds have long been common in the crafts and food industries, where DIYers spend a few hours making pottery or decorating cakes. But theoretically, any business that doesn't rely on hazardous materials or dangerous machinery can open up some part of the production process to customers. These are a few that have done so particularly well.