Some people will remember in the early nineties when Levi Strauss began offering custom-made jeans to solve the problems that many people, especially women, had with them: They didn’t fit quite right here or there.
In fact, Levi’s story is a neat encapsulation of retail mass customization in general. The company offered the service for 10 years, until 2004, but it never really took off. Consumers mostly loved the idea — first called Personal Pair, then Original Spin — and the media printed lots of stories about it. But the company itself never embraced it fully. Reorders weren’t easy and Levi’s never used the service to get feedback from customers or build a loyalty program around it.
Well, Levi’s custom jeans are back, and this time, they’re not just for women. You can get truly bespoke jeans made by Levi’s custom tailor, for $500 and up. Or you can order almost-custom fits that are not truly made to order (and not nearly so expensive) through the company's Curve ID.
The difference in the two programs, besides the company’s own attitude toward the service? In the 1990s, e-commerce was new. Women had to go to a Levi’s store to plug their measurements into a computer; no online or phone orders were taken. These days, when it comes to the jeansmaker’s Curve ID program, it’s designed to be an online process evaluating your needs for waist, hip, and length to come up with a quasi-customized fit.
The term “mass customizing” was coined in 1987 by Stanley M. Davis in his book Future Perfect, in which he argued that, while the Industrial Revolution brought mass production that spurred the standardization of goods and services, new technologies would make it cheaper to bring variety and some level of customization to mass-produced goods and services.
It hasn’t been until now, with e-commerce thriving and the possibilities of technologies like 3D printing, though, that retailers have begun to realize the potential of mass customization.
E-commerce is mature enough now
“Mass customized” is a nifty phrase, and it's perfect for the kind of breathless futuristic business writing that Stan Davis specializes in. It has that built-in contradiction in terms, that whiff of the oxymoronic, that seems to fit a stunning idea so nicely. But “customization” isn’t quite accurate for most mass customized products. “Mass tweaking” might be better, but it’s not nearly as fun.
Wild Things Gear, for example, is often noted as an excellent example of today's mass customization. The outdoor sports retailer sells high-tech gear for enthusiasts of a variety of sports, like skiing, climbing, and exploring, who require fabrics that can protect the body from extreme and sometimes changeable conditions.
All that while allowing maximum range of movement. As with Levi's Custom ID, customers can pick and choose among variables in Wild Things jackets. Options include color, stitching style, hood or no hood, style of hood, and more.
But, as wonderful as it might be to get gear so well chosen, the company is not exactly Georges de Paris.
Still, there's no doubt Davis was prescient; what he describes is pretty much what has happened. Mass customization is now possible because of today’s e-commerce capabilities, including inventory and supply chain management, customer communications, big data, and nimble websites.
Another major advance making mass customization possible is 3D printing. Normal is a company that makes custom-fitted headphones for $199 that are otherwise only possible to obtain through an audiologist at much more expense. Such headphones can help prevent hearing damage, because the tight fit means less outside noise reaches the ear. The user can hear more clearly and can thus listen at lower (and safer) volumes.
Normal uses mobile apps that allow customers to upload photos of each ear at the angles and areas needed by Normal’s 3D printer. The headset is unique to each ear, so its case is customized too.
The customer is ready too
Possibly most important thing to know when it comes to mass customization? Consumers are ready. To bring in another futuristic business book predicting something that appears to be coming true, the “experience economy” has arrived. For retailers, that means choosing the right products and the right methods to bring customization to scale.
After all, consumers are used to designing their own music playlists, so why not their own cereal? Shoes? Or classic American guitar? These days, thanks to mass customization, you needn’t be Eric Clapton to enjoy that privilege.