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Taking It Personally

Consumers want to make their mark—in more ways than one.

Look around, and you'll see things getting really personal. Products and services, that is. These days, everything from restaurant menus and baby gear to dog toys and adult clothing is being customized according to the wishes and whims of the consumer.

Consider the iPod, the hugely successful Apple digital music player that lets users customize their own music selections. Then there are restaurants like Chipotle that let people customize their own dishes and stores like Build-a-Bear Workshop, where customers can create their own teddy bears. The possibilities of personalization, as they say, are endless. "It's everywhere, and the need for differentiation is driving it," says Ted Leonhardt, global president of the Anthem Group, a strategic brand and packaging consulting firm with eight offices around the world. "We're going to see more and more specialization and playing to individual market needs," says Leonhardt, who works at the company's San Francisco office.

A recent American Demographics survey concluded that 75 percent of American adults crave more customizable products and services, and 85 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds feel the same way. A recent Harris Interactive poll of adult American consumers, meanwhile, found that 70 percent of respondents felt greater loyalty to companies that figured out their needs and tastes. And customers of all ages and income levels desire personalization, not just the young or the very rich.

The personal touch is definitely working for Michael de Zayas, founder and president of Neighborhoodies, a 1-year-old New York City startup with 75 employees that personalizes sweat shirts and other clothing items with the name of the customer's neighborhood-or anything else the customer wants to say-embroidered on them. The sweat shirts retail for $49.99.

Sales are already more than $1 million annually and are expected to hit $3 million in 2004. Neighborhoodies expanded its product line in February with "The Tote Monkey," a customizable bag that retails for $39.99. Celebrities including Beyoncé and Hilary Duff wear Neighborhoodies' products, and the company recently opened its first retail location in Manhattan. "It's been a phenomenal success," says de Zayas, 31, a former novelist. The clothes "are a conversation piece, whether they say a place or something funny."

Personalization will help entrepreneurial companies set themselves apart in a homogenized world; and customers are willing to pay a little more for it, says Doug Fleener, president of Dynamic Experiences Group, a retail consulting firm in Lexington, Massachusetts. Catching on to this trend could be as simple as personalizing the customer's experience in new and creative ways. It's how business will be done from now on. Says Fleener, "To be better, you have to be different."

Chris Penttila is a Washington, DC-based freelance journalist who covers workplace issues on her blog, Workplacediva.blogspot.com.

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This article was originally published in the June 2004 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Taking It Personally.

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