How to make mass customization work for your e-commerce business

By Ken Mendiola, Growth Marketing Consultant, SparkRaise

CONSULTING GIANT Bain & Co.’s survey on over a thousand online shoppers revealed 25 to 30 percent prefer customization options, as reported by Tech Crunch. Although only around 10 percent have actually tried it, a lot of popular brands are using customization for their marketing strategy.

Brands call it “co-creation”, “self-style”, “customer-centricity”, or “user-generated content”. While making a lot of buzz on the Internet, the strategy is also boosting profits. 

As an example, Nike offers custom shoes through its online service NikeiD. It is this big brand’s strategy to go direct-to-consumer (DTC) and boost its bottom line. In 2015, this DTC channel’s sales represented up to 22 percent of Nike’s total revenue.

Because of technology and the growth of social media sites like Facebook, Pinterest, or Instagram, big brands are getting closer to their customers. This allowed them to cut budgets on TV advertising and focus more on growing and activating their online communities. In the past, Nike’s biggest audience on any given day was the 111 million people tuned in to Super Bowl. But now, through its social media channels and website, it can hit that number in any given day.

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Using social media at work used to be a no-no, but it’s become a powerful tool for employees. Source: Unsplash/William Iven

Other brands are utilizing customization to engage their audience or drum up interest for a product launch. Asus ZenFone launched ZenLooks,  a contest to design the ZenFone 2 case, in late 2015. It also tapped influencers and well-known icons in several Asian countries. It even partnered with YouTube influencer Marzie to create a video of her designing her Zenfone – it got over 400,000 views.

SEE ALSO: Is Adidas’ tech venture a leading signal for the future of sustainable fast fashion?

Other brands which had tremendous success with mass customization include Vistaprint, which is now a US$2.5 billion company, and StickerMule. With the profile of success of companies using customization, you might wonder why all companies are not doing it. People naturally want to build things according to their taste and style.

Unfortunately, there are lots of businesses who have tried it but failed – Toyota’s custom cars in the ’90s, Tinker Tailor, closed just after a year of operation; P&G’s Reflect which uses mass customization for health and beauty products closed in 2005, and Burberry Bespoke which offers trenchcoat customization closed in 2015.

The question then is: How do you make mass customization work for your business? Here are three tips:

  1. Focus on people – the “Human Factor”

Mass customization is all about people – consumers becoming designers of their own products. co-founder Custom women’s shoe company Shoes of Prey  co-founder Jodie Fox says: “Customization is a really important thing now, really having that ownership and connection to what consumers want.

When people say they like my shoes, they’re really complimenting my personal taste, and that’s what ultimately much more satisfying.”

She believes customization is a brand enhancer and meets people’s psychological needs. Clothing and accessories have become platforms of expression, and for niche groups like the millennials, self-expression is a core value.

Jerry Lee, who runs StoryLeather, an LA-based leather production house that also uses mass customization, echoes Fox’s sentiment. He believes while technology is the great enabler of mass customization, the human factor is what keeps it running and profitable – your customers and employees.

This sounds simple, but it is supported by research. In their book, The Consumer’s Workshop: The Future of American Manufacturing, mass customization experts Ben Moore and Clint Lewis have identified people are what matters most for successful mass customization. Even if you have the most advanced technologies and most efficient systems, people can make the system work or they can let it fail.

E-commerce companies must include the “human touch” in their tech to maximize user experience. Source: AP

Employees like production workers, artisans, or customer service specialists must be valued, empowered and educated to the point they view themselves as stakeholders. Their mindset will then be set towards providing a product or service that is consumer-focused.

  1. Continuously improving user experience

Providing consumers the ability to customize the products they would buy is part of the user experience (UX). Businesses that succeed with mass customization have focused on enhancing the user experience – through designing products that are useful, easy to use and delightful to interact with. Mass customization begins with how users interact with your web or app interface when customizing their products. This would mean making your web interface simple, user-friendly and mobile responsive. Consumers also find design templates very useful.

To improve the UX, you must understand your customers and support their goals, make your interface easy to learn and enjoyable to use, and form a dialogue with your customers. 

SEE ALSO:  Fashion or function? Wearable makers under pressure to meet demand for both

StoryLeathe’s Lee further says, “With mass customization, you create designs based on your customer’s style and story. This transforms the customer into the designer. Some customers would even prefer to do hand sketches of the design they want.”  

Your role then as a business owner is to inject your knowledge and experience, and advise customers on the type of design that is practical and usable. Don’t simply take on a custom job to make a buck, make sure your customers will truly appreciate the final result and will love what they have built for themselves.

Adidas introduced an in-store knitting machine to empower customers to customize their own apparel. Source: Reuters

  1. Tap underserved niche using right approach

Certain niches are already crowded when it comes to customization of the product. Stay away from those niches, or if you think you have a better idea, you can improve on what existing mass customizers do. Do your own research and find the unmet areas.

Once you have found your niche, you must take the right approach for your mass customization strategy. There are four approaches to mass customization as outlined by Harvard Business Review contributors James H. Gilmore and B. Joseph Pine II. Depending on your industry, target market, and available technology and resources, you can choose to adopt one or a combination of these models: collaborative, adaptive, cosmetic, or transparent.

With the advancement of technology, mass customization remains a profitable business model. For many brands, being able to work one-on-one with their customer in turning their idea to reality is a perfect opportunity for to build customer loyalty.