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The Future of Shopping: Custom Everything

What happens when you can design your physical world as easily as you can reformat your blog?

Chris Clark is not a trend-obsessed tween or the kind of guy who lives for designer sneakers. The 37-year-old Dallas attorney is the rare person who actually just wears his running shoes for running.

Yet over the past few years Clark has bought three pairs of kicks from Nike's NikeID program, carefully customizing everything from the laces to the soles to a label with his middle name-Inslee-emblazoned on it.


"Nike is what I've always worn," Clark explains. "But sometimes you find a shoe that fits great and the colors in the stores are awful. I still care about how they look."

Bespoke products have always been available to anyone willing and able to pay the price, whether for an individually tailored suit or a customized car. In recent years, one of the big shifts in retail has been giving customers the ability to design their own versions of premium products-like wedding rings, pricey handbags, and Nikes-at prices that are comparable to the regular versions.

Now, without most of us realizing it, we're on the cusp of another big change. Thanks to market demands and developments in technology, we're going to be living in a user-generated world, where everything we use can (and will) be customizable. It's already happening, in ways both obvious and not.

Kleenex now has a site that lets you design your own tissue boxes for $4.99. Want your initials on M&Ms? That can be had too-though at the moment for a far higher price than the regular chocolates.

We have begun customizing other products daily without even realizing it, says Joe Pine, speaker, management advisor, and author of the seminal book Mass Customization. Consider Facebook and MySpace pages, for example, or the applications on our iPhones.

"We're training people to getting used to getting exactly what they want," he says. "That creates a snowball effect and they're going to start demanding it from other companies."

In the sneaker world, there may be no greater brand contrast to Nike, with its high-tech designs and superstar spokespeople, than Keds. While the top-of-the-line shoes that Nike sells are generally priced above $100, Keds' canvas sneakers retail for around $35.

Except, that is, for the custom versions, which became available through Keds Studio in August. The shoes, on which shoppers can print any color, pattern, or image, run $60. And in the first three months of business, Keds had 80,000 customizations, though not all translated into purchases, however, especially given the economic slowdown.

Keds had wanted to play in the custom space for years, says Charlene Higgins-Crawford, the company's e-commerce director of merchandising and operations. "It's taken us a while to figure out how to do it and to find a partner that had the technology."

Keds Studio was in part made possible by the availability of very high quality digital printers at a price that made the results affordable. Software developments let them give customers a good-and necessary-look at what they were buying. Partnering with Zazzle, a custom printing company that handles the whole process, means the completed shoes can be shipped within just two weeks.

"It's very important to be in the custom market," Higgins-Crawford says. "It's not going to grow your business like crazy, but desire to have exactly what you want in the way you want it is pretty significant with our target audience."

The same holds true across the board, Pine says. "There's been a huge trend toward commoditization, where consumers don't care about the product, they don't care who makes it, they don't care about the brand," he says. "They care about three things: price, price, and price. That's Walmart's raison d'etre."

In that kind of market, companies are turning to user customization to distinguish themselves. When Stan Davis coined the term "mass customization" in 1987, it was an oxymoron, Pine says. "When I wrote my book, I said in the subtitle that it was the new frontier. It went from oxymoron to new frontier to today, when it's an imperative."

Today the challenge is getting the price of customization down. Tomorrow it might be a new form of information overload.

As Clark says of his experience with Nike: "It actually was almost to the point of, do I really have to pick the color of the thread? There are almost too many choices."

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