Manufacturers today have many demands placed upon them. They must design innovative, aggressively priced products faster than ever. American and European manufacturers must compete on a somewhat unlevel playing field with manufacturers from low-cost nations that have an abundance of cheap labor and manufacturing resources. And, perhaps most importantly, they must answer to consumers who are increasingly demanding products that are tailored to their own specifications.
Consumer-driven customization, or mass customization, allows customers to participate meaningfully in the design of the products they will buy. Studies are indicating that consumers are jumping on this bandwagon. According to a study conducted by Forrester Research, more than 35% of U.S. online consumers are interested in customizing product features or in purchasing build-to-order products that use their specifications.
Let’s take a look at some of the trends that have contributed to the increase in product customization.
Digital world shapes customer experiences
There has been somewhat of a sea change in consumer behavior over the past decade, due to the significant rise in digital experiences. Customization today plays a much larger role in peoples’ lives, thanks to online experiences such as Facebook, Pandora radio and even GPS-enabled mobile apps, such as Google Maps, that promote the idea that the individual consumer should be integrally involved in the design and creation of products and services.
In order to capitalize on this trend manufacturers must get a better understanding of who their buyers are as individuals. This is crucial for them in order to forecast what feature combinations will resonate with them and to eventually predict what new features these customers will demand in the future.
Leveraging direct customer input—via social media and online feedback on their own sites—as well as predictive statistical models and advanced product analysis can help companies improve customer experiences with their products and enable them to predict future buying behavior.
Technology advancements make it easier to implement
No doubt that technologies, such as supply chain software and customer-facing configurators, have also played an important supporting role in the increase in mass customization. Supply chain software today makes it much easier on the production side of the equation by promoting a more efficient flow between customers’ co-design efforts and product fulfillment.
Another technology facilitator has been the plummeting price and time requirements for developing customer-facing configurators. The cost of these systems has fallen from $1 million a few years ago to less than $50,000 today. Marrying this technology with social media by embedding configurators within Facebook has made it an even more powerful tool.
A startup in Canada, MyCustomizer, is a cloud-based service that can simply plug into any brand’s website, just like an embedded YouTube video. The company has created a dashboard for companies to be able to create their own online customizer. Here’s how it works: companies come up with a product wizard, upload a picture, define the zones of customizability, and set up available options.
What’s even more amazing it takes five hours for companies to go from a blank picture to an online customizer for any product, any brand. And, the price is right too. MyCustomizer charges $99/month with a small per-sale commission to $10,000/month with no commission.
What’s the bottom line?
Creating products customers want is a win-win for both manufacturers and consumers. Manufacturers who ignore this trend will likely lose out on not just market share but ultimately on winning over customer loyalty.
It’s also a win for local economies because mass customization offers an alternative to the mass-produced, price-is-everything Asian factory model. Product customization strategies require local production to reach customers faster. While this might not regain the U.S. or EU’s lead in overall manufacturing, mass customization will lead to a small but important reindustrialization for build-to-order production.