The Store of YOU

Why buy off the rack when you can customize? Shoppers design clothes, candy, even credit cards.

Florida Panthers hockey fan Murphy Burch shows off the shoes he designed.

Florida Panthers hockey fan Murphy Burch shows off the shoes he designed.

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Here's some good news for the nonconformists among us: Soon, it may be impossible to follow the latest fashion trends. The days of True Religion jeans and Jimmy Choo shoes will be over. While retailers have long made money by selling multiple copies of the same pair of pants or mass-produced sneakers, we're on the verge of a world where every individual merits his or her own production line—call it the Store of You.

Driven by increasingly demanding consumers empowered by the Internet and new technology such as digital printing and online ordering systems, the shift to personalized production represents such a departure from tradition that the retail industry has been forced to come up with new terminology to describe it. Consumers are "information omnivores" who like "überobscure" products in the new "meconomy."

Owning one-of-a-kind sneakers, clothes, jewelry, wine, and even credit cards that reflect one's taste, personality, and lifestyle is the new sign of success and luxury. At the same time, it's a form of frugality well suited to the current economic downturn. By customizing, shoppers can get the most out of less frequent splurges. And the trend is not restricted to those with money—it spans ages, income groups, and regions.

Hard to please. "In the context of a postindustrial age where everything looks the same—you walk through the parking lot and have a hard time picking out Hondas from Jaguars—the customization process offers a sense of difference," says retail consultant Paco Underhill. One recent Yankelovich survey found that because consumers at all income levels have more options and access to information, they are less willing to compromise. More than half of respondents said an essential consideration when choosing a brand is how well it represents their unique tastes and individuality. While the number of retailers offering customized products is hard to come by, industry experts say it is quickly growing as retailers struggle to attract consumers who are hesitant to part with their cash.

The new production methods make the creation of one-of-a-kind items more affordable than ever, says Joseph Pine. He popularized the industry's term for the trend—mass customization—in a series of articles for Harvard Business Review and a book by that name in the 1990s. Pine says there are now hundreds and possibly thousands of retailers offering customization. Custom-made products were once so labor intensive, he says, that only the wealthy could afford them. While the printing and ordering technologies to customize for "the masses" have been available for at least a decade, only now is the trend really taking off as customers have come to realize it's available. "Customers are saying, 'I can get custom M&Ms, custom shoes—why am I putting up with the off-the-rack stuff over there?' " Pine says.

At Reebok, customers can design their own sneakers, mixing various colors, styles, and materials. In early 2009, a new program created by designer John Maeda will transform customers' photos into designs that decorate their shoes. "It's not just about us offering a set of tools that you can use, but we're saying to the consumer, 'What is important to you?'" says Rich Prenderville, Reebok's head of global brand marketing.

Murphy Burch, 39, an airline pilot and hockey fan in Cooper City, Fla., spent $105 on customized sneakers from Reebok that not only reflect the bright yellow, red, and navy colors of the NHL's Florida Panthers but also have his nickname—Murph—emblazoned on the back and a panther on the side. He plans to wear the shoes to all 41 games he attends this season. "I could buy a comparable shoe for $30, but I designed them, and they're exactly what I wanted," he says.

At the CafePress website, users can design and buy custom-made T-shirts, many of which focus on niche interests, political beliefs, or strange combinations, such as donuts with robots or pink llamas. "We're a huge destination for self-expression," says Amy Maniatis, vice president of marketing. "There's a huge trend toward 'I want it my way' and 'I want something that's unique and right just for me,'" she says. The company refers to it as "me-tailing." CafePress was founded in 1999 after digital technology made print-on-demand T-shirts possible. Today, 40,000 new products are added each day. The company generated over $100 million in revenue last year.