This is the second in a series of posts based on my presentation (”Can I get that in pink and eggplant?”) about the future of customer experience online at the Web Experience Forum in Boston on 14 October 2008.
Mass Customization and Manufacture-on-Demand
Customized products are the ultimate in personalization: customers can select from many options for many attributes to create a product that is unique. This level of customization is made possible my manufacture-on-demand processes. Finished products are not stored in inventory to be picked, packed, and shipped – they are actually manufactured when the order is received.
A potential hazard of customization is that it creates more choice, possibly too much choice, for the consumer. Much has been studied and written about the paradox of choice and decision paralysis, but it boils to situations where there are so many options from which to choose that the consumer is overwhelmed, and it is actually easier to make no choice (and abort the purchase) than to make any choice. When customers are presented with many customizable components, each with many configurable options, the number of combinations may be overwhelming. Therefore we need to design customer experiences that help customers get started, make decisions, support their choices, and encourage them to proceed and complete the process.
One way we can craft more inviting experiences is to manage the number of choices people are given and how they are presented. A manufacture-on-demand process does not need to be transparent to the customer – they do not need to know when products are stocked in inventory versus made when an order is placed.
At the discreet end of the continuum, customers never even know that they are ordering a custom product, because the merchant has pre-defined all of the options and choices (e.g., notebook color, binding, and cover image) and presents the product as a ready-made item. Even though the customer makes no choices beyond selecting a quantity, when the order is placed that product is manufactured.
At the limited level of the customization continuum, consumers realize that they are ordering a customized product, but they may not realize the extent to which that product may actually be customized, because the merchant has pre-defined some some of the options (e.g., ink color and envelope interior pattern) but left a few for the customer to specify (e.g., text on the notecard and the font.) The product is still manufactured when the order is placed, but the number of choices has been controlled to make the personalization process simpler and faster.
Finally, at the level of full customization, consumers realize they are are ordering a customized product, and they understand that it will be manufactured just for them when the order is placed. (Curiously, some customers still think that all variations on custom products have been manufactured in advance and stored in a warehouse awaiting selection and shipment when an order is placed, because they may not fully realize the number of combinations possible and that it would not be feasible to make every possible version of a product.) The choices and options are numerous, and the messaging about the product and customization service typically makes it clear that a product is being made just for the consumer according to their specifications.
There are web sites already offering mass customization of products, and we are likely to see more and more as the ability to manufacture-on-demand becomes more widespread. Today, manufacturing-on-demand is often limited to a base set of products (e.g., photo mugs and mousepads) to which a custom pattern, color, or text may be applied, or to products that have manufacturing processes that lend themselves more easily to mass customization (e.g., custom shoes.)
Cafe Press and Zazzle both offer a set of base products from which to begin. Customers then add their own personal touches and select from a few options to create products that are uniquely their own and which are manufactured-on-demand.
Reebok offers full-customization of shoes, and consumers have the ability to design their own shoe selecting from so many choices that there are literally trillions of possible combinations. A unique product is actually possible, and there is no way that Reebok could manufacture and stock all possible variations of the shoes – this is made possible only my manufacture-on-demand processes.
The manufacture-on-demand process and the ability to create custom products also quickly and easily opens up the opportunity for online, digital equivalent of “pop-up stores.” Pop-up stores are temporary physical retail stores that open for a short time in a previously empty location, generate buzz and attention, respond to a trend or community need, sell for a limited time, then close and disappear. Companies that have the ability to manufacture-on-demand could respond quickly to current trends, fads, and styles by pre-defining products, opening a temporary web site, and selling those products either under their brand or as an ephemeral brand. They could offer limited edition products, different products for different geographics regions, or even products that are offered only to existing customers. Once the ephemeral brand has run its course, the web site disappears.
Custom products are more than just choice for the consumer, they are also opportunities for the companies that are able to manufacture-on-demand, who want to differentiate their product offering, and who are able to quickly and nimbly respond to styles, fads, and market trends.