Instead of offering customers a handful of credit card options, Capital One lets consumers build their own mix of interest rates, fees, rewards, and cash back through its Card Lab website, launched in late 2007. At the online jeweler Blue Nile, shoppers can use the "Build Your Own Ring" program to select from 60,000 diamonds and dozens of settings, creating millions of possible combinations. At crushpadwine.com, consumers can design their own wine by selecting grapes, production processes, and packaging. ScribbleCouture.com lets parents order bags and totes emblazoned with their children's artwork. And MyDNAFragrance.com sells perfume and cologne based on customers' genetic codes (after analysis of a swab of their mouths).
Even products that have long been mass-produced—stamps and M&Ms, for example—can now be customized. This summer, Mars started using a proprietary laser printing technology to enable customers to decorate M&Ms with photos of themselves. Stamps.com creates postage stamps based on photos, color schemes, and even unique shapes. Chief executive Ken McBride says his company takes advantage of the fact that "people are frustrated with the limited selection they get at the post office," especially when they're mailing something for a special occasion, like a wedding invitation.
Providing this level of service often pays off by creating loyal customers who are willing to spend more than they would for a standardized product. The average Blue Nile engagement ring costs $6,000, about twice the national norm. The typical shopper spends 28 minutes on the Reebok custom site—a huge amount of time compared with most online users' attention spans, which are usually measured in seconds. Customers spend around $10 to $20 more than they would on similar, off-the-shelf Reeboks. The company also notes that according to its research, people who visit the custom site come away with a more favorable impression of the brand. Ralph Lauren, which launched a "Create Your Own" collection in 2003, allowing customers to choose the colors, style, and insignias on their polos, says people who design their own shirts are more loyal to the brand and more likely to shop both online and in stores.
For Lynn McCutcheon, a 42-year-old online marketer in Memphis, paying extra for custom stamps is worth it for special mailings, such as letters exchanged between her and her long-distance fiancé and family members. McCutcheon created stamps out of a photo she took of the Great Smoky Mountains near Knoxville, Tenn., her fiancé's hometown, where they plan to settle once they're married. Using the photostamps is romantic, she says, and serves as a "bonding experience" since the Smokies are a place that is special to them.
For geeks only. Sacramento, Calif., Web designer Teddi Deppner, 35, says, "I don't want what everyone else is getting at Wal-Mart or Target. If you wear plaid, it's not a real strong message. But when you have a geeky T-shirt that says, 'Be nice to me or I'll replace you with a very small shell script,' not everyone will understand it, but it says something about you." (Shell script, for those not in the know, is a miniprogram that automates a computer function.)
Some customized designs are about making connec-tions to like-minded people. In response to an online anti-evolution post, Georgia State student Ibrahim Shafei created a pro-science T-shirt. It read: "Scientist: Use in case of emergency. Apply to poverty, famine, the energy crisis, space exploration, disease, asteroid impact, natural disasters, sun death, and/or ignorance. Reusable." He likes customizing, he says, "because you can have someone tap you on the shoulder and ask you what it's all about."
Indeed, consumers are increasingly proud of their differences and want others to recognize them, says Darrell Rigby, head of the consultancy Bain's global retail practice. "They are demanding greater attention to their individuality, partially because of pop culture," he says. Shows like American Idol and America's Got Talent encourage people to embrace their talents and whatever makes them unusual, Rigby adds. That sentiment dovetails with a surge in consumer empowerment. Today's shoppers have access to almost endless information about the products they are considering purchasing. Adds Ron Shevlin, a senior analyst at Aite Group, a financial services research firm: "As we become a more affluent society, more highly educated, we become a society that really wants to take greater control over our lives.... It's important to people to not just be another number."