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.
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."
Generation Y consumers, a group that includes teenagers and 20-somethings, are particularly drawn to products that help define and broadcast who they are, says Lisa Feigen Dugal, a retail expert at PricewaterhouseCoopers. They grew up with Facebook, on-demand television programming, and blogs, all of which make them expect a certain level of customization from products, she explains. Their parents are often drawn to customization for an entirely different reason—frugality. Dan Butler, vice president at the National Retail Federation, says consumers are more price-conscious now because of the economic slowdown, so they are applying a higher standard to the products they buy. They want to make sure a purchase "really meets their needs," which a product designed specifically for them is more likely to do.
As consumers expect more personalization, it's the big-box stores that sell rows of products created on faraway assembly lines that will suffer, says Liz Crawford, consumer strategist for the consultancy Iconoculture. Many big stores, she says, "are still in the warehouse mentality, and the business model has shifted.... If you have to spend an hour wandering around looking for what you want, forget it." In a study of localization, or how retailers customize stores to reflect regional preferences, Bain found that in 1995, most national chains were focused on centralizing and standardizing their operations to reduce costs. But by 2006, Bain had identified 50 retailers and consumer product companies that were carrying out localization strategies, and now that number exceeds 100, says Rigby. Even the biggest box, Wal-Mart, has started customizing each store to fit regional demands, such as focusing on clothes that reflect local styles. Analysts say that has helped the mammoth chain stay relevant.
The bank of you? Research by IBM suggests that other sectors, too, including financial services, have much to gain by customizing their offerings. IBM found that two thirds of bank customers don't feel valued by their banks and only one third thought bank employees listened to their needs. Consumers also told Big Blue that they wanted more personalized service from their insurance providers. Some 57 percent said policies were not tailored to their needs. "You used to be able to make broad categorizations about customers," says Guy Blissett of the IBM Business Value Institute. "Now, each customer is an island of one who brings their own set of issues, priorities, perspective, and information."
The shift to custom-made may also signal a dialing back on globalization, since customized products are typically made closer to home, where they can be shipped directly to consumers at low cost. Ralph Lauren, for example, makes almost all of its products outside the United States, mainly in Asia, Europe, and South America. But the polos ordered through the "Create Your Own" collection are embroidered and otherwise customized at a new Ralphlauren.com fulfillment center in North Carolina.
Eventually, says Reinier Evers, founder of the research firm trendwatching.com, consumers may return to buying mass-produced goods. Once every lifestyle brand offers some kind of customization or personalization, it will make trendsetters "uncomfortable with the masses having access to all of this, too, so the next thing will be either very expensive bespoke or a backlash trend that's all about generic."
Until then, consumers will be reluctant to settle for anything less than products designed just for them.