Book Review: The World is Flat, by Thomas Friedman

“In China today, Bill Gates is Britney Spears. In America today Britney Spears is Britney Spears. And that’s our problem”. These three sentences perfectly describe the point I believe Thomas Friedman tries to get across in “The World is Flat“.

the_world_is_flatThe world has been radically transformed by politics, technology and economics in the past five centuries. The industrial revolution helped western countries and than companies rule the world. It all lead to a disparity between developed and underdeveloped countries. In the past century the force of governments was overcome by the force of companies spreading globally. And that is about to change.

The past three decades or so, the companies themselves helped a new entity rise above, in a connected world: the motivated and empowered individual.

“The World is Flat” is about the global individual and how he can rise above his own limits, when given the chance. Thirty years ago the birthplace was a pretty good predictor on the chance one has for success. Not anymore. Things have changed and Friedman shows the ten factors that lead to the new status quo:

The ten Flatteners (Forces that Flattened the World)

Thomas L. Friedman
Thomas L. Friedman

This global change didn’t happened all at once. Neither was it caused by one single force. Thomas Friedman lists ten factors that made the world a flat (or more connected) world:

No.1: 11/9/89 – The day the Berlin Wall fell became the day when communism started to crumble. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, countries grew closer together and the world became smaller.

No.2: 8/9/95 – The day when Netscape went public. We know that the world wide web changed the way computers talked to each other and how people connected to these computers. Few of us know how important Netscape, the company founded by Jim Clark and Mark Andreessen, and its Mosaic browser were when Netscape had its IPO. Before Microsoft embeded Internet Explorer into Windows, Mosaic was the tech wonder that allowed people to access websites in a friendly manner.

No.3: The Workflow software. We are now all familiar with some kind of workflow software, be it Microsoft Word, Adobe Photoshop or some 3D rendering software. But at some point such things didn’t exist. When people started using them they could split parts of business processes and outsource them

“Open-source is nothing more than peer reviewed science. Sometimes people contribute to these things because they make science, and they discover things, and the reward is reputation” – Marc Andreessen on open source software

No.4: Uploading – the power of communities. When people first got online they were using the web just like they were using the TV or other “old media” – consuming. But the Internet was a two-way highway – it allowed for downloading, as well as uploading. Soon people started building websites, writing blogs and developing open-source software. It allowed for better collaboration and a new type of empowerment for the individual that was previously nonexistent.

No.5: Outsourcing. In 1999  three seemingly unrelated but soon to be very important events started to converge in India. The first – the country started producing more and more software developers in its IIT college. Second – fiber optic extended all across the globe and reached Indiay. Third – the Y2K scare was pushing every large company to update its software. As India’s software support was way cheaper, companies started hiring new people to help with the update. The outsourcing movement accelerated and then spread throughout the world.

No.6: Offshoring. On December 11, 2001, China joined the World Trade Organization. By doing so it agreed to the WTO terms governing exports, imports and foreign investment. That became one of the biggest steps in global commerce in the past millennium. Companies started offshoring companies to China where they could manufacture products at lower costs, lower taxes and export them worldwide.

No.7: Supply Chaining. What do Walmart, Amazon, Zara and HP have in common? Probably a lot but one of the most important things that makes these companies what they are is their supply chain. When the world got connected companies such as these spread their supply chain all over the world, to the places where products can be manufactured cheapest and at the best quality. Their supply chains brought the world together in a way governments and armies never could.

No.8: Insourcing. While you might not know this, companies such as UPS or FedEx are doing a lot more than just moving things from point A to point B. Of course, they do that but they also fix your Toshiba laptop, pack, inspect and deliver your Nike shoes and all in all handle logistics for many of the companies you love. How do they do that? They get inside the companies that contract them and help them be better at delivering value.

No.9: Informing. We take Google for granted. We can navigate to the answer for any question. We can access content written all over the world. Information became accessible as never before in human history, to anyone with access to a computer and Internet. Google, Wikipedia and others allowed information to flow everywhere in the world.

No.10: The steroids. Digital, virtual, mobile. When the book came out in 2005, the author listed the HP’s iPaq as a steroid for flattening the world. The device was supposed to be omnipresent allowing for constant connectivity. The irony is that the iPaq is now dead and another i-something (the iPhone) became the revolutionary device HP went for. These steroids are the digital enhancements that allow all the others to converge constantly and empower the individual.

The World is Flat is a book that might feel unpopular …

…especially for anyone in the western world, people that were told all their lives that they will have a job, they will have a house, they will drive a good car and they will have a happy family. And then comes Thomas Friedman and says – not so fast. There is a kid in China, or India or Eastern Europe that will work 3 times as hard for half your pay and he will be happy about it.

Thomas Friedman gets some very unfriendly reviews on this book and sure, some may be true (the writing style tends to get a little boring and repetitive at time) but most are unfair. It is not Friedman’s fault that jobs are outsourced. You shouldn’t blame the book for having to work harder for the same pay. The world IS flattening (it is not yet flat) and soon we will all need to run a little faster, just like a gazelle and a lion in Africa ….

“Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. 

It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed. 

Every morning a lion wakes up. It knows it must outrun the slowest gazelle or it will starve to death. 

It doesn’t matter whether you are a lion or a gazelle: when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.”

 

The book is a must read for any retailer looking into understanding how the global world shapes the global commerce and what ecommerce has to do with it. Before long – it might become mandatory to understand retail on a global scale if you’re willing to survive in business.

Top 7 Live Chat Software Vendors for Ecommerce

While customer support is one of the most important aspects of running your ecommerce business, it is also one of the most expensive and hard to manage.

When you’re talking customer support, you probably picture people with headsets in a huge open space, taking phone calls and answering questions. Maybe you picture something a tad relaxed, somewhere along the lines of a Zappos call center. Either way call center involve human resources, technology to set up, management and others. If you think that gets expensive – you are right. Fortunately, there is a growing alternative to this.

Enter the Live Chat Software.

bold-chatIn a recent study by BoldChat customers worldwide responded to the question “Have You Ever Engaged in a Live Chat?”. Results showed that more than half the respondents did engage in live chat, with more 65% respondents in the US saying yes.

prefered-form-communicationAlthough email is still the leading form of communication throughout the world (see left), live chat is catching up really fast , especially in the United States, Canada and Mexico.

One of the most prominent companies to use live chat is UK based  Virgin  Atlantic Airways Ltd. The company reports a 23% conversion rate for customers using its live chat feature. That is approximately 3.5 times higher than the conversion rate for users not engaging in live chat.

Virgin also reports that live chat also tends to increase average orders value, with customers spending 15% when chatting with an operator. Not only is live chat useful when trying to increase sales but it can also boost productivity, with one live chat operator doing the work of 15 email operators.

Who are the top live chat vendors?

If you’ve ever happened to look for live chat support software, you’ve probably stumbled across dozens to hundreds of different solutions. Some of them free, some open source, some paid. To help you get through the noise, I’ve put together a list of 7 of the most reliable live chat software solutions, from the easiest to implement to full-blown enterprise software suites.

The list is based on the clients size and profile, data regarding cost of implementation and solution reliability. Let’s start with number 7:

7. Zopim

zopim

Zopim is probably the youngest company on this list and a very promising one, for that matter. Its live chat application is easy to setup, light and very customizable. It offers a wide array of options and reporting information and can be used to integrate fully with sales operator teams.

The company, based in Singapore, has recently been acquired by Zendesk, a leading customer service solutions provider.

Features

Among its many features, Zopim lists:

  • Visitor visualization
  • Real time visitor info
  • Email chat transcript
  • Multi-device support
  • Visitor webpath tracking
  • Customizable greetings
  • Developer ready API

Pricing

Pricing ranges from free (demo account, one chat agent only) to $20 / agent (unlimited chats, departments, widget customization etc.)

 

6. Website Alive

website-alive

Website Alive features live chat, mobile chat and click to call solutions to retailers. One additional service that stands out is the “Concierge” service that includes the live chat software but also dedicated operators by Website Alive, for retailers willing to outsource customer care.

The Live Chat app is feature packed and allows integration with the “click-to-call” option, allowing customers to ask for support on the phone. Retailers can customize their widget look and feel, aligning it with the store’s branding.

Features

  • Chat transcripts
  • Visitor tracking
  • Invitation Pop-ups
  • Chat collaboration
  • Communication records
  • Call Routing
  • Multiple chat lines
  • Call transfers

Pricing

Pricing starts with the basic pack of $29.95/month, with 2 operators included, and goes up to $97.95/mo for the full pack.

 

5. BoldChat

bold-chat-img

 

BoldChat, a product of Bold Software, features the usual live chat support systems as well as some other, more advanced tools. Among them – multiple customer support interactions, click-to-call services, co-browsing and SMS communication.

In 2012 the company was acquired by LogMeIn, a company focused on providing online support for computer, smartphone and tablet owners. Price tag: $16.5 million.

BoldChat invests heavily in research, some of its resources being available online. The company is focused on midsize to larger online retailers, making it one of the more reliable tools out there.

Features

Among others, Boldchat lists some features targeted at larger online retailers, such as:

  • Cross-domain implementations
  • Passive browsing sharing
  • SMS, Email and Twitter management
  • iPhone app
  • Mobile-aware windows
  • Post-chat survey
  • Salesforce integration

Pricing

Pricing starts at $599 / year / agent.

 

4. Moxie Software Live Chat

moxie

Moxie Software is a provider of integrated customer support systems. It’s enterprise products are integrated and used by companies such as Dell, 3M, Epson, Crocs and others. Its Live Chat system allows text dialogues, co-browsing, reactive chat and proactive chat.

The company extended its products to handle social media requests, mobile browsing, click to call features and others. One very important aspect of Moxie Software is its Knowledge Base support center and self-service applications.

Integrations

The live chat solution can be integrated with company CRM solutions such as Microsoft Dynamics, Salesforce.com or Nuance.

Pricing

Pricing varies by project

 

3. Right Now Technologies (Oracle RightNow)

oracle-right-nowIn 2011 Oracle acquired Right Now Technologies, for $1.5 Billion. At the time Right Now Technologies was handling over customer relationship management systems, as well as call center software, for over 2000 SMB’s. After being acquired, the company was integrated to Oracle and rebranded as Oracle Rightnow Cloud Service.

The division handles live chat, among others for some well known multichannel and online retailers, such as Overstock.com, BeachBody.com and others.

Features

Oracle Rightnow handles many critical aspects of customer service, among which larger companies can find:

  • Live Chat
  • Web Self Service
  • Mobile Live Chat
  • Email management
  • Contact Center integration and software

Pricing

Varies by project

 

2. LivePerson

livepersonLivePerson is one of the leading companies providing online customer care solutions. Its LiveEngage platform integrates live chat, social media, voice, content applications, mobile customer support, CRM software as well as advertising and marketing.

The company boasts more than 1.8 billion web visits observed each month. To handle this kind of traffic, the company also launched LP Insights, monitoring a complex set of customer analytics, such as behavior, sentiments and buying patterns.

Its live chat interactions allow contextual customization, so visitors can have meaningful interactions with operators.

The company handles communication needs for some of the largest online retailing brands, such as The Home Depot, IBM or Virgin.

Features

  • Conversion improvement
  • Cross-channel communication
  • Personalized experience
  • Agent productivity tracking
  • Automated customer offers

Pricing

Pricing ranges from $500 / mo for small and mid-size companies to $5000 – $15000 / mo for enterprise users.

 

1. Oracle Live Help on Demand

Oracle-logoOracle made heavy investments in the ecommerce area. Before Oracle acquired no. 3 on our list, it had already bought ATG (Art Technology Group) for $1 billion in 2010. Recent moves show Oracle Live Help on Demand moves toward integration with Oracle Rightnow. Until that happens, Oracle’s Live Help technology still powers some really big retail brands such as Costco, The Home Depot and Procter & Gamble.

Oracle Live Help features live chat, voice and email integration, providing tools for multichannel integration.

The Live Help solution tracks customers, analyzing data left behind, thus improving chat support by personalizing the experience.

As you can see, whether it is the Live Help solution or the Rightnow environment, Oracle is leading the way in online retail live chat and customer support systems. The others, however, are moving fast, are flexible and companies such as Liveperson are soon to challenge the big red.

 

 

 

PayPal to Process More Offline Payments

Ebay subsidiary PayPal is dead serious about taking on a $10 trillion market: the Multichannel Payments Market. To do so it will have to prove its worthiness against older companies, especially in offline commerce.

Multichannel Payments

A steady increase in Ebay's Revenue. Biggest cash cow - PayPal, 41% of total revenue.
A steady increase in Ebay’s revenue. Biggest cash cow – PayPal, 41% of total revenue.

With more than 140 million registered users already, PayPal has the sweetest spot in the online payments today. Its acquisition of global payments company Braintree secured an additional 35 million registered users. As President David Marcus puts it – this is a part of an effort to redefine money and payments into what he calls “Money 3.0” – a new way of looking at payments and how customers use them.

PayPal owner-company Ebay is at the front of what some would call a commerce revolution led by technology. Its three main branches (The Marketplaces, Ebay Enterprise and PayPal) all work together in this changing landscape.

The Marketplaces (including Ebay.com, Shopping.com and Rent.com) enable C2C Commerce, while Ebay Enterprise caters end-to-end multichannel commerce technology. Ebay Enterprise is the tech, operational management and marketing vendor for the likes of Toys’R’Us, Radioshack, Sony ant many others.

Between these two, the payment processing subsidiary PayPal leads the way in online payments. The company is Ebay’s most promising subsidiary, growing at 20% in 2013. As of 2011, it decided to go offline, allowing customers to handle their money, cards and PayPal wallets in one place.

POS solutions

paypalofflineTo increase offline usage, PayPal now offers point-of-sale solutions, mostly targeted at the new tablet-based counters. Store owners can easily implement its apps and start charging right away.

In an effort to increase adoption, PayPal started integration with third-party store management solutions such as ShopKeep POS, Booker, or Leapset.

Among its benefits for store-owners, Paypal lists security, quick implementation and an all-in-one approach to accepting payments, scanning barcodes, tracking inventory and sending invoices.

Customers willing to take their PayPal Wallet to an offline store account can pay by swiping their PayPal paycard, using their account or by paying online and picking up in store. Having a larger pool of companies accepting PayPal payments allows the company to securely handle all transactions, allow customers to receive loyalty points and handle all personal information.

Ebay and PayPal will stick together

paypal-growthSince Ebay purchased PayPal, both companies listed a successful increase in revenue. Ebay powered PayPal’s adoption to its marketplace users and in turn PayPal grew up to become one of Ebay’s most profitable subsidiaries, amounting to 41% of total revenue in 2013.

With the help from Ebay, PayPal grew from $600 million in mobile payments to $27 billion in just three years. The figures are posted on the 2014 annual shareholder meeting website, in response to Carl Icahn’s demand to spin PayPal off into a separate company.

Carl Icahn, one of the most notorious corporate raiders in the tech industry, demanded PayPal to be split into a separate company and become listed on its on. The board of directors fought his demands showing that even though the company is open to changes in the future, right now the two are working better together.

Luck would have it that shareholders reached an agreement to keep the companies together and handle the incoming commerce revolution as a whole.

“[…] we have moved aggressively to leverage PayPal’s integration with eBay to expand PayPal’s reach to millions of online retailers and to offline transactions. PayPal remains one of the fastest growing elements of the company – which helps explain why others are targeting the payments business but are far behind PayPal.”

John Donahue, Ebay CEO. Source.

 

4 Easy Ways to Better Understand Your Online Customers

understandingAdvances in technology have been revolutionizing the way businesses are conducted. They are also reshaping the landscape on how companies interact with customers. This is a phenomenon that is clearly observed in e-commerce. E-commerce is not only reducing costs but is also increasing efficiency and expanding possible revenues.

Because the Internet is facilitating interaction, it is now possible to instantly and easily understand online customers. A business need not spend much on doing traditional market research. Here are four easy, fast, and less costly ways to better understand the thoughts, behavior, and attitude of online consumers.

  1. Conduct or check out surveys.

Online surveys or polls are designed to determine thoughts and behaviors of online customers. There are many of such studies that cover your sector or industry. If you prefer results and findings that are more specific to your business, you may commission or conduct the surveys. It can be as simple as asking your customers to fill out simple survey forms online. You may also use the free online survey services that are available across the Internet. Survey results can give you an idea of how your online customers think and feel about your business.

  1. Use Web analytics tools.

To date, there are various Web analytics tools that facilitate better understanding of online consumers. The most common are analytics about specific keywords of key phrases that are most commonly used by consumers when using search engines for finding information or products they need. You can use the information to optimize the content of your own online site so that you can take advantage of opportunities brought about by higher search engine rankings.

  1. Check out customers’ testimonials.

You can find out how consumers think about products and services. Testimonials posted by businesses through their own sites may not be reliable as those could be biased. The best and most credible testimonials come from actual consumers who ventilate and air their rants and raves through online forums, discussion boards, and reviews. Check those out to find consumers’ actual opinions about businesses and products.

  1. Test the market.

This option can be quite risky and costly. It is advisable to check out the first three ways enumerated before finally testing the market. You may launch a small-scale product or service launch to determine if online consumers are really ready and are open to try out innovations and new offerings. Actual sales can be the best indication of what consumers really think. Testing the market can lead to two types of decisions: first to pursue or go on with your business activity and second, to stop what you are doing because the market is not yet receptive.

Author: Richard Fisher

About the author:

Richard has been involved in the online marketing industry for several years. After spending time working on user experience optimisation, Richard is now a strategist at Infinity Technologies, one of Australia’s leading ecommerce digital agency.

Why Do Online Retailers Fail?

A couple of weeks ago someone asked me a great question. It came from an entrepreneur interested in opening an online store. She had a brick and mortar shop, some experience in offline retail, great merchandise. Previously she’d noticed her customers were asking why can’t they order online, so she decided to give it a try.

So there we are – discussing the necessary steps to open the online channel and integrate it with the offline store. As she previously noticed that success in online retail is seemingly random, she asked a question I was not accustomed to:

Why do online retailers fail?

See – most people want to know what makes Amazon, Staples and other large online retailers successful. They figure that if they study these companies carefully they will get to be successful also. It seems intuitive – see who the leaders are and than copy them.

Companies such as Shopify or BigCommerce thrive on the idea that anyone can start a shop online and be successful. If Jeff Bezos can – why can’t I?

amazonjeff-bezos
Jeff Bezos – Amazon

Browse the internet and you’ll find dozens of blogs (this one included) on this particular subject. “How to be successful when selling online”? You’ll get thousands of posts on what makes online retailers succeed. The harsh truth, however, is that most online retailers fail.

You should know that …

Amazon is an exception.

Staples is an exception.

AliBaba is an exception.

Ebay is an exception.

Multi-billion online retailers are exceptions. They are market anomalies. They are not the norm. The harsh truth is that beyond logistics, most of these companies have done totally different things on their way to becoming successful online. They will continue to do so. And they probably won’t share their plans and strategies online.

Even if these strategic plans and key performance indicators were available online – what good would it do? Say you had all the information on how Amazon works. What good will it do? There already is an Amazon on the market. You’ll be a challenger at best.

So there is really no way of making sure your store will succeed. But there is something you could do: minimize the chances of failure.

There are patterns in online retail failure

There is a saying that goes something like: Tell me where I’ll die so I will never go there.

While successful online retail business models are really different from retailer to retailer, failures, I’ve noticed, have common traits. Companies ignoring basic product management, employees not engaged in client service, poor merchandise – they are all things easy to spot when retailers close shops.

Before going online and browsing around for the latest marketing gimmick, have a look at six of the most common things that lead to failure:

1. Lousy and/or not enough products

Commerce hasn’t changed much in the past … umm … thousand of years. The basic concept is simple: you buy a product from the manufacturer, bring it to the customer, get something in return. Of course – the customer needs / wants to be provided with the best merchandise he or she can afford.

Failing to put the product first is the one biggest mistake retailers make. It’s easy to believe that it’s all marketing and you can sell anything. You can’t. At least you can’t do it for a prolonged period of time. Eventually people will start asking for their money back. They will post bad reviews. Your store will fail.

So focus on the product. Find manufacturers that will deliver upon high standards.

Having great products is not enough, though – they have to be plenty. Customers need choices. Of course – you might think Apple does not need variety but the industry Apple is in does. There are plenty of PC’s, laptops and smartphones out there. All at the right price.

2. The wrong price

Pricing is one of the areas most sensitive to error because it can swing both ways. You can either charge too much or not enough.

You can be charging too much and there is nothing wrong with selling expensive products but make sure they’re worth it. Remember – online, anyone can track prices. Customers can feel cheated if your markup is too large.

You can also be charging too little – remember, prices are not weapons, unless you’re the market leader. Even then – prices should be used as a last resort. A cheap product remains a cheap product. Do the math – see if your supply chain and procurement can handle low prices. If not – differentiate with services, a curated selection of products and great customer service.

3. Not paying attention to customer care

Actual Zappos Call-Center
Actual Zappos Call-Center

As an online store there aren’t too many points of contact between you and your customer. Probably the most important is the customer care team. Operators answering the phone are one of online retail’s biggest assets. Or liabilities.

For every Zappos-like company that thrives on great customer care, there are thousands of online retailers ignoring it.

Having a customer satisfaction – oriented team can work wonders for online retailers.

4. Ignoring logistics

Quick – do you know what makes Walmart the largest retailer in the world (both online and offline)? Prices? Sure, but that’s just part of it.

The answer is logistics. Walmart was not always the company we know today. Between 1980 and 1990 the company started a quick expansion program to enable it to match its competitors. In 1981 they tied their stores through a satellite communications system that would enable real-time reporting, as soon as products were purchased. By 1988 90%  of all stores were using barcode readers to handle inventory tracking. It doesn’t seem like much now but back then there was no internet to connect the stores and barcode reading was only just taking off.

Now, Walmart is an astonishing logistics company. This is the key to keeping the company well supplied and one of the most important factors in keeping the prices down.

Amazon, too, is much more than meets the eye. Between the print on demand options, huge warehouses, robotic warehouse management and integrated supply and demand – Amazon means logistics. Retailers failing to improve their logistics will have problems staying afloat.

5. Outdated or limited technology

You wouldn’t be expecting technology to be an issue when it comes to online retailers. After all – online stores are … well … technology based – right? Indeed, but there is much more than a front end when it comes to online retail technology.

Here are a few things retailers need to invest in, if they are to expect to stand a chance:

  • CRM software – you need to know as much as possible about customers and make sure they are satisfied with your service
  • Inventory management – this is a combination between hardware, software and know-how. Online retailers need to know in real time what’s in stock, what is expected to go out-of-stock and where are the slow movers. For starters.
  • Supply chain management – dealing with suppliers is not always easy. Technology can help streamline the relationship between suppliers, retailers and end-consumers. Automated order placement and processing, barcodes, RFID readers and tags to help track packages, inventory inflow and outflow management – these things sound boring and complicated. They are, however, necessary for any online retailer.

6. Bad management

No technology will save a company lead by bad management. And as you might expect this is a combination of factors. There is no single individual usually guilty of sabotaging the company.

One can notice in failing online retailers some patterns – a combination between managers focusing too much on marketing or PR, a rigid organizational structure and the lack of senior expertise.

There is little data on the impact of rigid and poorly prepared management when it comes to online retail. This is due to the fact that online retail is still in it infancy and performance indicators can be  misguiding. It is, nevertheless, one of the most important factors in failing online retail companies.

6 things that can lead to failure for online retailers

So there you have it – the 6 big things that you need to focus on. Notice there are no tips on marketing, website design, search engine positioning and such. These are not critical problems. Marketing, design, accessibility – they can all be easily spotted and fixed.

Unfortunately – it is harder to understand and improve the product range, prices, logistics, customer care and of course – management. But this is where you need to look for a chance at building a successful retail company.

 

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.