Today’s consumers are connected to each other and to their favorite brands more closely than ever before. Everything, from their smartphone apps and social media activities to the way they shop, reflects a unique blend of choices and preferences. In this connected world, a customized experience is no longer something to aspire to – it’s essential.
“Mass customization is a trend we see developing globally, with advancements coming from all world regions,” said Stacy Glasgow, consumer trends analyst at Mintel, a market intelligence agency with offices in major cities worldwide. “It is driven by the complex, multifaceted self-identities that prevail today; consumers have come to demand products and services that fit their unique personalities and different needs.”
Leading brands are using innovative technologies to deliver on the customization expectation while boosting customer engagement and building loyalty.
DISTINCTIVE BY DESIGN
Most consumers are familiar with the capability to customize a product’s appearance, such as choosing the color and embroidery on a pair of sneakers or having a favorite photo printed on a smartphone case. This key trend speaks directly to the consumer’s sense of uniqueness and is helping to drive personalized interactions between consumers and their favorite brands.
Customization of products and packaging is an increasingly popular trend, according to Seth Moser, director of Consumer Goods and Services for the Accenture Customer Innovation Network, part of the international consulting firm Accenture. “Customization,” he said, “is driven by fashion, by marketing and by people’s demands for an experience that makes them feel special. An increasing number of new technologies are enhancing this trend as an in-store experience, as well as online. Customization is one place where we’re starting to see truly seamless retail, where e-commerce and bricks and mortar come together.”
“CUSTOMIZATION IS DRIVEN BY FASHION, BY MARKETING AND BY PEOPLE’S DEMANDS FOR AN EXPERIENCE THAT MAKES THEM FEEL SPECIAL.”SETH MOSER
DIRECTOR OF CONSUMER GOODS AND SERVICES, ACCENTURE CUSTOMER INNOVATION NETWORK
For many consumers, Moser said, e-commerce has become the default choice for transactions. As a result, physical stores have begun to focus more on creating exceptional consumer experiences and offering personal interactions. “Even if you are ordering a product which is being manufactured elsewhere, you might still want to touch and feel some aspect of that product or pick out the colors yourself and put them in front of you in the store,” he said.
Not surprisingly, therefore, brands that have focused on offering customization primarily through their online channels are now bringing these offers into their physical stores, where the ability to see and touch products before buying is driving consumer demand. For example, Glasgow said, “in Brazil, the Esmalte Machine can customize nail polish in 100,000 shades. To meet the demand for customization in that category, the company is launching 60 new franchises this year alone.”
The Adidas Group, an athletic apparel company headquartered in Germany, focuses on delivering a multidimensional in-store shopping experience. Its HomeCourt concept stores include personal-experience elements, such as a digital shoe bar where customers can learn more about products simply by placing a shoe on a table next to a touch screen. Once the screen recognizes the shoe, shoppers can zoom in on a 3D image of the shoe, rotate it and explore the technology inside it to learn how the shoe is designed to maximize performance. If the shoe they’ve chosen proves not to be what they’re looking for, the touch screen’s shoe finder suggests alternate styles to meet their needs.
Adidas also has invested in developing innovative capabilities, such as its “#miZXFlUX” app, which enables consumers to print almost anything – from their favorite photo to an image selected from a themed gallery – onto their Adidas ZX FLUX shoes.
“FOR TODAY’S CONSUMERS, REAL WORLD AND DIGITAL WORLD ARE PRETTY MUCH INTERTWINED, WITH MOBILE DEVICES INCREASINGLY BECOMING THEIR ‘REMOTE CONTROL FOR LIFE.’”JAN BRECHT
“For today’s consumers, real world and digital world are pretty much intertwined, with mobile devices increasingly becoming their ‘remote control for life,’“ Jan Brecht, CIO of Adidas, wrote in a recent blog for Adidas Group. “I think it’s essential for today’s economy, and of course for the sporting goods industry, to cater for changing consumer needs and expectations.”
As brands blend physical and digital channels in the realm of product customization, additional opportunities for personalization, beyond the product’s appearance, become possible. For example, brands are using sophisticated web infrastructures to build customizable experiences beyond their physical products.
“Brands can enable a customized experience by integrating their product with the digital ecosystem that they use to interact with customers,” Moser explained. “This is very scalable, so it makes a lot of sense for lower-margin products.” For instance, he said, “some food companies are starting to use labeling standards to provide a whole new digital level of interaction on top of the product.”
Coca-Cola’s “Share a Coke” campaign became a global phenomenon as consumers in more than 70 countries bought drinks labeled with their names, visited the online store to personalize glass bottles and shared virtual bottles with friends and relatives online. UK firm Appy Food and Drinks, meanwhile, partnered with food processing and packaging company Tetra Pak, headquartered in Switzerland, to include interactive technology on drink cartons. Consumers scanned the cartons with their smartphones to collect props associated with their favorite Nickelodeon cartoon characters. Consumers could then use their collected props to customize digital photos.
Emerging manufacturing technologies are also enabling increased customization.
“This trend might include a customized food mix for your dog, or sneakers with an orthotic insole manufactured just for your foot,” Moser said. “It has largely been driven by the medical industry where, for example, 3D printing might be used to create a cast that perfectly fits a patient’s arm. It’s been slower to emerge in the consumer goods space because the technology is a little more challenging, but it is likely to have a high impact over the next few years.”
Digital design tools are already enabling some brands to deliver tailored products while keeping costs down. Online apparel store eShakti, for example, with design teams based in New York, London and India, offers a range of designs that shoppers can customize to suit their individual style, size and height. The company says on its website that because it cuts each garment to order, it doesn’t need warehouses, which cuts costs.
Developments on the horizon will support even more customization. US-based startup Electroloom, for instance, is developing 3D fabric printing technology that will enable users to design and print their own clothes. The technology has already captured the interest of brands and designers around the world.
“Our goal is to use the Electroloom to open the world of fashion design and manufacturing to everyone,” said Aaron Rowley, a biomedical/mechanical engineer who is co-founder of Electroloom. “We hope to enable people to work with Electroloom and do product typing for design by the beginning of 2016. Eventually, we hope to refine the technology so that it can be used in homes or stores to produce custom items. To provide that sort of experience, we’d build a storefront where people can submit their own designs or select from a range of custom templates.”
A CONSUMER-CENTERED BRAND EXPERIENCE
By putting the consumer at the center of the brand experience, mass customization emphasizes the importance of customized service and products throughout the shopping journey. Technologies that are aware of the context in which they are being used, as well as mobile interaction technologies – including Apple’s iBeacon for location- based services, near-field communication, electronic product codes and biometric devices – are enabling more interactivity than ever before, and brands are leveraging them to create truly customized shopping experiences.
“New technologies and approaches that brands are pioneering today will further solidify consumers’ expectations for customization,” Mintel’s Glasgow said. “In store, for example, retailers are using systems which can read shoppers’ emotions and provide deals based on real-time feelings. In the online/mobile space, retailers are using social media to better fulfill the needs of individuals, with initiatives such as using Facebook ‘likes’ to decide what goes on shelves and targeting Instagram users with personalized outfit recommendations based on their previously posted photos.”
“NEW TECHNOLOGIES AND APPROACHES THAT BRANDS ARE PIONEERING TODAY WILL FURTHER SOLIDIFY CONSUMERS’ EXPECTATIONS FOR CUSTOMIZATION.”STACY GLASGOW
CONSUMER TRENDS ANALYST, MINTEL
Key examples include:
• Rebecca Minkoff’s flagship store in New York City, where shoppers can customize their perfect look with mood lighting in the dressing rooms and interactive touch-screen mirrors. The mirrors allow shoppers to switch sizes and colors in an instant, request recommendations based on other styles they have selected, or save the fitting session for a later date.
• Russia’s Synqera, which has created a cashier platform called Simplate that uses facial recognition and expression technology to offer discounts and shopping suggestions based on a customer’s identity and body language.
TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING?
Brands need to think carefully about the level of personalization shoppers really want, however. In its recent study “Creepy or Cool,” global omnichannel personalization firm RichRelevance observed that while shoppers want digital personalization when they are ready to make a purchase, they may see some interactions – such as being greeted by name when they enter the store – as intrusive.
“You need to be ingesting the right information, from the store as well as the stream data that is automatically generated by websites,” said Matthieu Chouard, vice president and general manager for EMEA at RichRelevance.
Chouard cites Monsoon Accessorize, a UK-based retailer with more than 1,000 stores in 74 countries, as having an industry-leading vision for personalized shopping experiences. In 2013, the company began using in-store tablets to provide assisted selling and payment. Monsoon Accessorize also employs machine learning algorithms and a real-time decision engine with digital receipt technology to identify cross-channel buying behavior and provide highly targeted product recommendations and offers via emailed receipts.
“The more data you have, the better insight you can get from it and the more accurate you can be in terms of service delivery to the customer – from identifying products they might like to buy and knowing whether those products are in stock, to anticipating the type of service or interaction they would like to have with the retailer,” Chouard said.
Ultimately, mass customization promises to transform the products we buy and the way we buy them.
“We’re seeing constant developments in terms of what can be done, but there is still untapped potential,” Glasgow said. “Goods and services that can be continually customized will win with consumer tastes; smart technology can be employed to learn consumer habits for seamless customization; and in an increasingly digital world, there’s refreshing opportunity to enhance tactile customization experiences.”