Is Mass Customization the Future of Ecommerce?

Henry Ford said “People can have the Model T in any color – as long as it’s black”, in the early 20th century. That’s when Ford’s innovation, the assembly line, vastly improved productivity thus reducing production costs. Lower costs meant companies could manufacture cheaper products and still be profitable.

The assembly line made possible the mass production of goods. Things that were previously custom-made and unique soon became available to the now emerging middle class. Clothing, food, even cars and houses became accessible to the mass market.

More than 100 years after Ford launched the "one color" Model T, Ford buyers can customize their cars online

More than 100 years after Ford launched the “one color” Model T, Ford buyers can customize their cars online

Industries were built around product manufacturing. The customer was no longer the center of the universe. Companies focused on the product. Products were manufactured in large quantities, distributed and sold, with a lot of help from advertising companies. Even though advertising was around, it wasn’t the type of organized industry we now know until the television set became a part of consumers’ daily lives. By borrowing some concepts used in WWII propaganda, experimenting a lot and innovating, advertising quickly evolved in a mature tool to push mass – manufactured products to the market, globally.

Mass manufacturing becomes the standard

After 1970 two trends started to emerge. First one – the mass-manufactured product becomes the norm. Faster assembly lines, improved productivity with better management and companies going global – it all lead to bigger manufacturing facilities and more money poured into advertising. In the western world people were spending earned and borrowed money faster than ever before to buy mass-market products.

The second trend was improving production with help from computers and networks. It all started small and kept growing. Innovation in the IT industry allowed companies to improve manufacturing productivity further. Soon cars stopped being built by people and robots took over. They were faster, better, less prone to error and cheaper in the long run. They also learned new things a lot better. With automated assembly lines, the mass produced goods could be reprogrammed to build new products fast.

The product development cycle was shortened. The fact that now BMW or Mercedes are able to launch a new model every month is possible because of advancements in management and IT. These companies can now target customer groups. Ford’s Model T was a “One Size Fits All” product but now everything’s changed. The auto companies can split their customers and they can build products for increasingly smaller niches.

Mass customization becomes a reality

The internet changed everything. When Michael Dell decided he would create a special PC for anyone willing to pay for it, he probably had no idea what his actions meant. Now Dell is a global company and one of the largest online retailers. When the company decided it was going to offer mass market customization features, it seemed like a really risky move. At that time, computer manufacturers were already engaged in a price war to market accessible computers.  It didn’t seem like a good idea to turn a mass produced, mass marketed product in a customizable one.

Dell offered their customers what they wanted: the ability to choose between different options in terms of design, software and hardware. The order, assembly and shipment processes were streamlined using software designed to minimize human input and error. Today’s devices (be it desktop computers, laptops, tablets or smartphones) are available in many formats. Most of them are a hybrid between mass produced and customized products.

The future of mass customization is already here and the company that helped most with making it a reality is the largest online retailer in the world: Amazon.

Amazon lead the way in mass customization with Print-On-Demand

amazon logoFirst off, Amazon made possible a type of personalized experience for customers by providing personal recommendations and notifications based on purchase history. Its second biggest innovation was print on demand. With Amazon, books were no longer published en-masse for long-tail items. Rather, for a small amount of extra cost, they were made available as items printed on demand.

This innovation spawned a new breed of self-published authors, leveling the field for publishing. In turn, readers were now able to read books otherwise unavailable and writers could skip pitching to publishing houses. The effect was so dramatic that some large book retailers had to close their brick and mortar stores.

Top ecommerce companies selling mass customized merchandise

From shoes to t-shirts to art-prints it seems like anything is game when it comes to online-powered mass-customization. Many companies jumped the customization wagon, but few stand out. Have a look below at these companies:

zazzle

 

Zazzle.com

One of the most popular platforms in the world for Built-To-Order, customized products is Zazzle. Its mission: “To Enable Every Custom, On-Demand Product in the World On Our Platform.” It is a mix between self-curated product designs that can be customized by customers, and a wide variety of products submitted by designers and entrepreneurs in the marketplace.

The company partnered with large brands to provide customizable products for companies such as Disney, Hallmark, DC Comics or even Google. It is growing fast, outpacing its competitors and bringing mass customization for the wide market.

Zazzle’s success is based on two main factors. The first is its ability to customize products that are manufactured separately and customized at the end, with input from the end consumer. This allows for a minimum slowdown in manufacturing capabilities.

The second factor helping Zazzle tackle its competitors is a patented color print technology that allows it to manufacture multicolored items, without signifiant increase in costs and manufacturing time.

It does also help that Klein Perkins Caufield & Byers, a well known Silicon Valley VC firm, backed Zazzle with $48 million. The VC’s have also backed up a couple of companies you might have heard of, such as Google, Amazon, AOL or Electronic Arts.

chikoshoes

Chiko Shoes

Ladies – ever felt like you could be the world’s best shoe designer? Felt like you’ve hadn’t had the chance to show what you’ve capable of? It turns out you are not alone. Founders Rumbert Kolkman and Judy Chin believed they could make shoe design a mass-customizable market. In 1999 they’ve built a B2B company that would allow shoe retailers and designers to access a rich supply chain with ease.

In 2013 they’ve opened this option to the public, unleashing the power of mass-customization to end buyers world wide. Prices are ranging from $230 to $1200 and Chiko Shoes allows customers to chose between 1300 material swatches.

The shop goes against luxury heavyweights dealing with customization, such as Louis Vuitton Mon Monogram or Prada’s Lettering Project.

shapeways

Shapeways

We’ve previously listed 3D printing as one of the technologies that are disrupting online retail. Among many other companies providing 3D printing technology, Shapeways stands out as a potential market leader for 3D printed custom items.

The company was founded in 2007 in the Netherlands. It moved to NY, where it received a $5million founding from VC’s including Andressen Horowitz. It now runs a fully operational marketplace where designers can sell their 3D designs and customers can create their own.

As of June 2012 is sold over 1 million user-created objects. Production was provided by its Queens, NY 3D Printing factory that uses  50 industrial printers to manufacture millions of user designed custom projects.

threadless

Threadless

Threadless started as a marketplace for t-shirt designers and quickly evolved into providing other customized merchandise. Users can purchase clothing items (such as t-shirts, hoodies or tank tops), art prints or phone cases.

Although Threadless does not allow mass customization per se it does allow users to submit designs. These designs can be featured and sold to consumers afterwards. What makes Threadless different is the fact that not all designs are accepted and marketed yet those who do are chosen by the community.

ethreads

Ethreads

Ethreads allows customers to create their very own bags, starting with a blank model and adding options using the online design tool. The shop also offers options to see what others have designed and the ability to buy directly on Amazon.

fab.com

Fab.com

Fab started as a flash sales online store. Its approach proved very lucrative for a while. The company decided to take another path by providing customized design options for furniture and home deco buyers. Although the change affected only its european operations, it seems the company is heavily interested in developing its customization options. It completely stopped marketing its products and flash sales options in the EU and is fully engaged in providing customized furniture.

A preview of furniture designed on Fab.com

A preview of furniture designed on Fab.com

The furniture is made-to-measure according to users’ needs. It allows customers to design their own products in 5 main categories: shelving systems, tables, sofas, beds and wall shelves. A complex yet easy to use configuration system allows potential customers-turned-designers to create the perfect match for the home. Inputs allow customization of size, materials, colors, finishing and others. A 3D visualization engine allows customers to view their newly created product before ordering.

This new pivot in the company was made possible after Fab purchased Massivkonzept, a company founders declared was already profitable and growing. It seems Germany is a great place to look for companies focused on customized furniture design. Woonio, a german ecommerce startup, offers customized furniture like tables, beds, lounge stairs.

The future of retail is mass customization

Examples above show any industry can allow mass customization and is prone to change. Individuals need to feel empowered when purchasing and technology has made this possible. Whether is next year or 10 years from now, mass customization will become massively popular.

 

 

4 Ways you Can Engage Customers with Mobile … Other than Sales

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past 5 years you’ve probably heard about these two buzz-words – “mobile” and “mcommerce” (or mobile commerce). Usually retailers use them together because hey – that’s what retailers do – sell stuff to people. Now that a new channel is here let’s just go ahead and grab it. Well – maybe that’s not the best way to go.

You see – people tend to think of their mobile phone as something quite personal. It’s always there in their hands or pockets, it holds their most private conversations and information, it’s there when they go to sleep, it’s there when they go to bed.

Not many think in the same terms about retailers or shopping. Shopping is less of an addiction (except for those shoes, ladies) and more of a mix between (1) necessity, (2) convenience and (3) marketing induced propensity to buy. Nothing really personal there so don’t expect your customers to download your app, browse the products and buy after. Oh, and mean while, if you do expect that – don’t push notifications unless they actually ask for it.

When building a mobile app – do more than replicate your online store

Mobile sales

Mobile sales

Say you’ve built an online store for your brick-and-mortar operations a couple of years ago. By now you’ve probably seen a healthy increase in sales and you’re quite confident in online retailing overall so you decide to invest in a mobile application to handle mobile users’ needs. You decide that the logical thing to do is build an mobile app to showcase your products and let your users buy from that app.

That’s what usually retailers do but not what users want – remember the personal attachment people have to their phones?

Here’s a couple of things you can do right on your online store to serve mobile shoppers (which, by the way – are on the rise as you can see here):

  • build a responsive design to handle desktop users, mobile users, tablet users
  • adapt that design to fit each type of device
  • make payments as easy as possible and as secure as you can for mobile users

Now that you’ve covered the basics, while not boring or forcing your users to adapt to your store packed a native application, let’s make your mobile experience personal:

1. Make it useful

The smartphone is nothing if not useful. You can use it as a music player, email reader, browser, game console and dozens of other things. Your app should be useful. Here are a couple of examples as how companies made their apps useful to the targeted audience and changed the way customers thought of them:

Uber connects passengers and drivers. Changes the way they connect.

uber

Alright – Uber is not actually a retailer but we need not think in terms of black and white. What Uber handles extremely well is a customer need and delivers to that need as well as it’s expected. Note that its mobile approach is just a means to an end: customer satisfaction.

Amazon is sure it can outmatch brick and mortar competitors’ price. Launches barcode scanner app to prove it.

Amazon Barcode Scanning app

Amazon Barcode Scanning app

Amazon handles a huge inventory. If there’s any product out there that has a barcode attached to it, chances are you can buy it on Amazon with one click. The company makes that easy with its barcode scanning app – find a product, check the barcode and find it on Amazon. Easy and useful.

2. Make it fun

The Amazon Kindle is a disruptive mobile strategy that changes the way we read (and buy) books.

The Kindle iOS App

The Kindle iOS App

Back to Amazon – ever thought about the Kindle as a store? No? Because it’s one of the best stores out there. You can’t see the cash register but it is there. It is hidden behind that great mobile device / mobile app that allows you to read your favorite books (and purchase more of them), but it is there. It’s so good that it helped Amazon reach a point where, in some markets, it already sells more eBooks than paperback.

Talk about fun…

3. Make it local

Shop Nearby, by The Find

Shop Nearby, by The Find

Let’s just assume that not all shoppers are inclined to buy online or rather more – some of them need to find a product quickly, in their nearby area. The want the product now and are willing to drive to the local store to buy it. Here comes Shop Nearby, by The Find.

The application makes it easy for you to find a certain product in your close area or browse through all shops nearby.

4. Make it Personal

Last but not least. Make it personal. It has to be personal because mobile devices are personal items and apps should be personal also.

Gilt understood this when they launched …

Gilt personalized shopping

“Our goal is to make it even easier for members to discover products they love while they are on the go” said Steve Jacobs, Chief Information Officer at Gilt.com

Personalized sales

Personalized sales

Gilt.com is, as you probably know, one of the largest fashion flash sales retailers online. With a huge database filled with customer information and purchase history they can make their approach to sales chic and personal again.

When Gilt.com was launched it served as a private venue for brands to unload their unsold inventory. It used to be private and quite a little secret for Gilt’s members. Once the store got bigger and bigger they found they were unable to cope with users need for short-stock brand clothing. Even more – they couldn’t handle selling premium brands discreetly, something their suppliers were not really happy with.

Now that the personalized shopping has been launched, users can get special (and by that I do mean special) deals, based on their purchase history.

What’s not to love about a store that handles a one-on-one relationship with millions of customers?

Online Stores as Super Heroes: Top 5 Online Super Retailers

There are retailers and then there are super retailers. Here’s a list of some of the bravest and strongest online retailers and their super hero avatar.

Let’s start with number 5:

5. Batman

Secret Identity: Apple.com

batman-apple

The Batman Super Retailer is a mighty hero – strong, determined but first of all – rich. He uses gadgets to fight off the competition and just when you think he is going down  he manages to bring out a game changer out of his handy secret belt (once every year during the WWDC).

But oh my under its dark armor (designed in California, made in China) lies a hurtful secret: The Batman Super Retailer misses his dad, killed by cancer. He tries to cope with the loss by continuing in its tradition and trying to save the world from bad design. Sometimes unsuccessfully.

Biggest enemies:

The Redmond Joker and Mr. Android.

Weakness:

The Dark Knight is everybody’s target. Everyone talks about the “the iphone killer”, “the ipad killer”, “the Apple killer”. Why? Because “he’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now… and so we’ll hunt him, because he can take it.”

 

3. Spiderman

Secret identity: Fab.com

spiderman-fab

You know that awkward kid that no one actually cared about back when he was into, what was that – photography? Oh, no, wait – it was social networking. It seems he is not so awkward anymore. Overnight he turned into this fabulous, tights wearing, home decorator that simply just loves to help you pick that lovely new carpet for your living room (yeah, he’s also gay).

His super powers are a. his spidey senses when it comes to picking beautiful products and selling them online, b. climbing on walls and giving you ideas on how to better redecorate, and last but certainly not least his unmatched ability to adapt fast to the market. By doing things like letting you design the furniture you want to buy.

The Spiderman Super Retailer has recently moved on from the recently mainstream Flash Sales market and into this new thing he’s doing right now, that doesn’t include Flash Sales and is aaaaalll about design. Also – you’ve probably never heard about it.

Biggest enemies

The Green Goblin living on One Kings Lane, and a distant cousin of Iron Man, the Doctor Octopus also known as  Gilt Home.

Weakness:

Spiderman the Super Retailer catches clients in a pretty expensive marketing web. It seems that its greatest weakness is the high customer acquisition cost.

 

3. Iron Man

Secret identity:  Gilt.com

ironman-gilt

Rich, famous, bright and ready to wear some of the best suits in town. The Iron Man Super Retailer was fathered by Kevin P. Ryan, that had a history of investments in some companies you have probably heard before: Business Insider, Mongo DB, Double Click. Although his corporate siblings are definitely bright, Gilt.com seems to be the prodigal son.

The Iron Man retailer is no match for any of his enemies when it comes to building the best technology, working and managing the smartest people and just being a genuine charismatic fashion and style icon.

Although not really into astrophysics the Iron Man Super Retailer manages to learn new things on the fly, adapt and … look … he does offline retail now.

Biggest enemies

The dreaded Miss RueLaLa – rich, smart and uber-sexy. She is backed up by her corporate hotshot husband, Mr. Ebay and has so far snatched a couple of victories from Mr. Gilt.

Weakness

Beautiful she-heroes like Miss RueLaLa or Maidmoiselle Ideeli.

 

2. The Hulk

Secret Identity: Walmart.com

walmart-hulk

When it comes to this Super Retailer – one thing’s for sure: you do not want to make him angry. When things go south this green retail monster will squash its competition with its low prices and national coverage. You are never too far from him and you won’t be able to hide when he gets all “Hulk, Smash!” on you.

What’s his super power? The Hulk Super Retailer has the upper hand when it comes to size, strength and endurance. The whole operation employs 1.6 million people, it’s bigger than Home Depot, K-Mart, Costco, Kroger, Target and Sears, combined and most americans (90%) live within 15 miles distance to a Walmart shop.

His online operations aren’t to shabby either: it made $4.9 billion in 2011 and that’s him not really trying. When exposed to the Big Poppa Walmart’s Green Dollar Radiation this Super Online Retailer has the potential to make its fellow competitors look like scrawny kids.

Biggest enemies. Biggest weakness:

The biggest enemy this hunk of overgrown retailer has is itself. Bigger is not always better. The Hulk is either a smashing machine or the smart researcher working at Walmart Labs. He is still trying to control its size and keep its balance while growing so fast. He is not yet there but he will be. From that moment on there will be only one Super Retailer that will, maybe, be able to face it:

 

1. Superman

Secret identity: Amazon.com

amazon-superman

This Super Retailer is actually in a class of its own. He is stronger and faster than anyone else online. He has a global reach and can fly and wirelessly deliver its products to anyone, anywhere. He grows faster than anyone else and has so far proven unbeatable.

He was born in a time when  people didn’t believe in its type of heroes. He struggled and after some slightly awkward teenage years (it took Amazon 9 years to turn a profit) it finally showed up at the graduation party, red cape flowing and all.

He is known for making a living of print but in time it diversified its product catalogue through a combination of digital content and marketplace products. After all – how could this Super Super Retailer finance its Fortress of Solitude other than by reporting a whooping $48 billion revenue in 2011.

Biggest enemies:

General Zod, a super enemy seemingly out of this world, seems to have set up shop with AliBaba.com and is now threatening Superman’s global reach. The Hulk (mentioned earlier) is not too happy with Superman’s hegemony either and is trying to catch up but is not yet strong enough to go head – to – head with the Man of Steel.

Weakness

No one has actually found the Kryptonite that is said to be the Amazon killer but rumor has it that its expanding marketplace and investment in digital sales might not be so healthy after all.

What are Flash Sales Sites and How do They Work?

Visits to Flash Sales Sites have doubled 2011 to 2012. Source: Time.com

Visits to Flash Sales Sites have doubled 2011 to 2012. Source: Time.com

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past 5 years you’ve probably heard about a little thing called flash sales sites. Well … maybe not so little. It seems that, according to Gilt founder and ex-CEO Kevin Ryan, the flash sales sites you’ve probably heard about, such as Gilt, Fab and Rue La La have been doing great with turnovers between $100 million and $1,69 billion.

These are all new fresh companies so how come have they managed to grow so fast? How do they work? What is the business model and who are the most prominent players on the market?

Let’s start with number one:

What are flash sales sites?

By now you may have pretty clear idea that flash sales mean generously discounted merchandise. It may be fashion, home products, electronics or others. Customers expect flash sales sites to deliver well .. cheap(er) products.

The whole idea is by no means new. Brick and mortar stores used to and still do it from time to time (usually seasonally) in order to unload overstocks. At some point someone realized that there is a business opportunity there:

Say you have a dozen retailers each having 10 products that went unsold in the previous seasons and they want to get rid of all these stocks. They can either deal with all the hassle of organizing a sales operation to unload extra stocks or someone can just buy the whole merchandise, at an even lower cost and then resell it and turn a profit.

At first companies buying these products didn’t need to sell it at a discounted value. They would just buy the whole unsold stocks and try to sell it (they were usually successful) on a different market. Example: buy discounted merchandise in the US and sell it in Eastern Europe where last year’s collection is not only “good enough” but “great”.

[Read more how retailers connect channels with Omnichannel Retail]

In time the whole “moving to a different market” operation proved to be a little too complicated, with global recession, countries getting a little more protective with their own economy and so on. So a new business model came up:

How do flash sales sites work?

Flash sales develop a large targeted potential buyers database, test these potential buyers to see which is the right product mix and then buy unsold inventory and resell it at a large discount. Sometimes – they don’t even do that. They just attract potential customers to several discount offers which become active when a certain number of buyers is reached. They ensure this way that they are able to purchase the merchandise without reporting losses.

The logistics in this business is a little tricky if you are dealing with “volatile” stocks and can sometimes turn to frustration from customers as orders sometime take weeks to arrive.

Increase in customer lifetime value.

Increase in customer lifetime value.

However, when purchases are made, flash sales sites customers are more likely to buy again, according to this study. Customer lifetime value increases 385% for flash sales sites, whereas traditional online retail shows an increase of “only” 94%.

So – business is a-booming. Buyers flock around flash sales sites, they buy more than on traditional online stores and the business model seems to be more stable than Gorupon’s.

Who are the champions and who are the contenders? Let’s start with number 5:

Which are the top largest flash sales sites?

5. Fab.com

Although Fab is moving to a no-flash-sales model, the company still features some of the sales that made them famous.

Although Fab is moving to a no-flash-sales model, the company still features some of the sales that made them famous.

4. Ruelala.com

Ruelala.com

Ruelala.com

Ruelala had a dashing growth in the previous years but few know it is part of GSI Commerce, which in turn is a subsidiary of eBay so yeah, Ruelala is part of eBay.

3. OneKingsLane.com

One Kings Lane was launched in 2009 by female entrepreneurs Susan Feldman and Alison Pincus

One Kings Lane was launched in 2009 by female entrepreneurs Susan Feldman and Alison Pincus

One Kings Lane.com is a place where customers can get a great curated product mix for home. The revenue was roughly $200 million in 2012.

2. Gilt.com

Gilt, although not turning a profit is approaching the $1 billion turnover threshold fast.

Gilt, although not turning a profit is approaching the $1 billion turnover threshold fast.

1. Vente-Privee.com

Largest and one of the oldest flash sales sites - Vente-Privee, unlike its crappy URL is actually awesome with its 2013 Euro 1.3 Billion Turnover.

Largest and one of the oldest flash sales sites – Vente-Privee, unlike its crappy URL is actually awesome with its 2013 Euro 1.3 Billion Turnover.

The award for the largest flash sales site goes to Vente-Privee, which has had a 40% increase in flash sales in 2012. Their sales went up to € 1.3 billion (aprox. $1.69 billion). They’re living large. So large that in order to celebrate this great feat they bought a theater. No, really.

How big are flash sales?

Now, if you’ve find flash sales interesting, you might head over to this link right here, where you can have a look at an infographic showing more information on the subject at hand.

flash-sales-pic