Customizing For The Masses

Digital technology lets you order exactly what you want

Think of a dashboard that looks like Swiss cheese, with spaces to plug in different dials and gauges in any range of combinations. The car radio can have knobs, slide handles, or old-fashioned dials. The interior fabric that lines the roof might match a family tartan or be turned into a giant speaker. If Lear Corp., the world's largest automotive-interiors supplier, has its way, customers can even tell auto makers to make their dashboard translucent orange. All this is made possible by the "Common Architecture Strategy," unveiled by Lear on Mar. 6. People would get this level of customization at close to the same price and about the same delivery time as a regular upgraded automobile. "Customers can pick what they want instead of us telling them what they should have," says James Masters, president of Lear's technology division. If auto makers buy the idea, it could be ready for 2002.

That's just the start. Thanks to digital technology, the mass market of the 20th century is giving way to a market of one. The automation that made cloned cars and clothes ubiquitous is being replaced by technology that allows a staggering degree of individualization. Customers can communicate directly with manufacturers via the Internet, and their instructions can be absorbed into production at little--if any--extra cost. This so-called mass customization has profound implications for many traditional manufacturers. It will prod many to overhaul production lines to combine the benefits of automated assembly with the power to include a vast array of personal touches.

CUSTOMIZED COFFEE. This next-wave technology is already sweeping across the apparel, cosmetics, and publishing industries, among others. Levi Strauss & Co. and Brooks Brothers Inc. are among those offering machine-customized clothing, thanks to new technologies that handle single items on the assembly line, or take body measurements that are then zapped to a manufacturing plant through the Web. Nike Inc. has NikeiD, which allows customers to alter the color, design, and even construction of their shoe. Meanwhile, Mattel Inc. is hawking "My Design" dolls, customized "friends" of Barbie with clothing, skin color, hair styles, and even "personalities" picked by each owner. Procter & Gamble is dabbling in customized makeup and coffee.

While new technologies may fuel the trend, the instant gratification of Net surfing is helping to spur demand. B. Joseph Pine II, a leading consultant and author on the subject, argues that "customers are getting used to getting exactly what they want" on the Internet, and that's affecting their desires in other product areas. Michael Dell understood this when he began selling computers in 1985. He streamlined production to let people personalize such aspects as the design, software, and power of their computers. Dell also cut out middlemen through a toll-free number and reduced inventory costs by building each computer to order. The company sold 20,000 configurations last year, with half of its $80 million in daily sales coming from the Internet.

The key to customizing on a mass scale is digital technology--a combination of hardware, software, and new machines that fine-tune the production process. Think of it as an automated pull-down menu of options that can slot in a vast range of instructions, from fabric types and color to size and shape, depending on the product. What makes it work is a standardized architecture that lets people plug and play with a variety of options. Nike, for example, has customers fill out a Web questionnaire of preferences for its NikeiD. Every night, it transmits those orders to specially-equipped plants in Guangzhou, China, and Pusan, Korea, where the information is downloaded to a production line that can pump out the individualized shoes. The system is so simple that Nike charges only $10 extra for the service.

"EMBRYONIC." But much of the activity is taking place on a business-to-business level. Gerber Scientific Inc. in South Windsor, Conn., has come up with state-of-the-art systems that help its clients customize their apparel production lines. Chairman and CEO Michael J. Cheshire says the make-to-order process cuts inventory and brings extra value to the customer. Gerber has also invented systems that digitize sign-making on a variety of materials, customize textiles and industrial fabrics such as pool liners, and computerize optical lens-making so eyeglasses could be turned out in less than an hour. "This whole area is just in the embryonic stage," says Cheshire. He predicts mass customization will comprise 70% of Gerber's business by 2003, up from half.

Automating the customization process not only saves people the effort of tampering with products themselves, it can move their desire for cosmetic changes and personalization to a new level. Take something as simple as vitamins. In 1997, Brad Oberwager's sister, who had cancer, was taking 12 vitamins a day and having trouble with the regimen. Oberwager decided it was possible to combine all those ingredients into one pill. He launched Acumins to sell customized vitamins over the Internet. He now claims thousands of customers and, more importantly, contends that they're three times more loyal than those buying generic products even though his vitamins cost about 10% more.

Mass customization speeds up production by automating tasks once performed by hand, and it can also enhance the whole customer experience. When people step into Levi's "body-scanning" booth in its San Francisco store, they get measured against a backdrop of strobe lights and space-age music. The experience may mean as much as the measurements, which could easily be taken by hand.

In some markets, the real challenge will be convincing customers they should take the time to alter their products. Richard Gerstein, the vice-president of design and marketing at, a customized beauty-products site started by Procter & Gamble, says less than a third of people use the right product for, say, their particular hair type. Who cares if they don't know? He does. "I think the Internet will change the way people think about what they can buy," he says.

That said, the mass market isn't about to go away. One problem with customization is that it requires customers to do a lot of the initial legwork. That means filling out forms, picking choices, standing in scanning booths, and otherwise going through the hassle of helping manufacturers take the guesswork out of serving their needs. That's fine for a major purchase, but many might not want to waste the time when they're just buying a shirt or a tube of lipstick. Of course, once companies have that data on file, it may be much easier to make later purchases.

Traditionally, buyers have had to pay more and wait a long time to get exactly what they want. Most preferred to pay less and get approximately what they want. Mass customization is changing that equation. Jeffrey D. Roth, the chairman and founder of, a new Web site devoted to customized goods that has 100 product categories and expects to have 2,000 within a year, says that most major manufacturers have some kind of mass-customized product under way at the moment, if they haven't launched one already. With consumers already getting a taste of control over their products, it's only a matter of time before manufacturers let them call the shots.

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