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.