Monday, April 7th, 2008
Based upon our work with leading brands like Timberland, Design Within Reach and Reebok on their custom product offerings we frequently field calls from potential customers looking to either start a custom program or to evolve their existing offering. In many cases these are customers looking to move from first generation (often hard-coded and rigid) technology to a system business users can update (without a PhD in computer science from Stanford).
There are a lot of challenges associated with selling a configured product. Many of these are outside the scope of what we normally do at Fluid. But the custom product business is challenging and specialized enough that we have developed a deep understanding of much of what it takes to get a custom program running, whether it is part of our traditional offering or not. In this post I’ll explore a few of the considerations many people fail to keep in mind as they embark upon a custom program. In a subsequent post I’ll discuss Fluid’s product and services offering and how it is designed to address many of these challenges.
A few of the frequent stumbling blocks we encounter at Fluid include.
- Getting the product built: This seems like an obvious one but you’d be surprised how often we spend time talking to customers only to learn they haven’t thought through this specialized manufacturing process. While most of these people have an existing manufacturing business few take into account the challenges of taking a factory (and it’s employees) designed to mass-produce items by the hundreds of thousands and produce items one at a time. Doing so efficiently and reliably should not be taken for granted.While this topic is outside the scope of both Fluid’s skillset and this post, it is frequently the point many companies’ dalliances with custom products end. It’s that little detail – actually getting the product customers order built and shipped to them in a timely manner – that trips them up. (NOTE: for those of you considering a custom program we have a handful of companies that specialize in this type of manufacturing that we can point you to)
- Accepting orders in your platform: Next, there is the processing of orders through the customer’s ecommerce system. In the same way that many factories are designed to produce standard products not custom ones, many ecommerce systems are designed to produce products that can be represented by standard SKUs (style-color-size). After all, this is what happens for about 99.5% of all ecommerce transactions.Accepting an order for a product with as many customizable attributes as on Reebok Custom (up to 30 on some products) that can come in more than 9,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 different variations is simply not something the typical ecommerce system is designed to do. Some do it more gracefully than others. At Fluid we have successfully integrated with Demandware, GSI and GSI’s Aspherio as well as home grown systems and have investigated many, many others. We can help you understand what to look for when evaluating if your platform is a fit.
- Shopping cart: Allowing customers to gracefully move from product configuration to checkout (And back!Customers are rarely 100% decisive and may want to return to a design and tweak certain aspects of a design, especially when configuring 6 or more attributes) and see their product, as they configured it, in their cart is an important part of the conversion process. Does your shopping cart support custom products? And if there is a way you can wire it together and make it work, is there an easy way to re-enter the configurator?
- Integration into the site: Many manufacturers treat custom products as “special.” And they should, custom products typically engender positive customer perception, generate brand attachment and sell for a premium. But by treating them as special they are too often relegated to a separate part of the site or even a micro-site. This makes them difficult to find and the outcome is lower traffic, fewer sales and a disintegrated experience. Timberland is a brand that has done a nice job of integrating customizable products into the main shopping experience, increasing visits and sales.
- Reporting: Given all the challenges associated with accepting orders and getting your product built, is it any wonder people rarely think of how they’ll understand what people actually buy? And frankly, when we ask customers what they would look at if they were able to see reports, the answers are not resounding. Since every order is different there would be very few commonalities in configuration. But looking that most frequently ordered color on a per-attribute basis and a few other reports can be a very valuable tool. The value of reporting and measurement should never be overlooked as we try to build measureable, constantly improving ecommerce offerings.
If this whole thing sounds overwhelmingly complex, there is hope! It has been done many times before (it gets easier every time). While technology may not have progressed to the point just anyone can set up a factory and build-to-order, increasingly brands are experiencing success with their custom programs. This success can take the form of improved brand perception, higher customer engagement and, most importantly, increased revenue by offering custom products. Also, technology is catching up. In my next post I’ll go into more detail about how Fluid helps customers deliver award winning (SXSW, Webbys etc.) product configuration experiences.
In the mean time, please feel free to contact us with any questions about getting your custom program off the ground.