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Finding the Luxury in Mass Customisation

Prada SS11 Lace-Up Project | Source: Prada
  • BoF Team

LONDON, United Kingdom — Once upon a time, luxury goods makers delivered individualised products to customers based on the buyer's personal preferences, tastes and budget. It was a process that often involved a series of face-to-face interactions between individual clients and the skilled artisans who would craft the goods. But as mass production began to replace craft production as the dominant form of economic activity, the voice of the individual customer was mostly removed from the equation at all but the highest levels of the product pyramid. Indeed, Henry Ford, who is credited with inventing assembly line production, once said: "Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black."

But today, the rise of a new mode of production called "mass customisation" promises to restore individuality to the product design process. In a recent report entitled "Mass Customisation is (Finally) the Future of Products," Forrester Research describes the process like this: "Mass customisation bifurcates the product experience of customers into two stages. First, the customer participates in design by making choices around particular features. Second, the manufacturer produces a unique built-to-order product for delivery to the customer."

The idea of mass customisation is not new. Joseph Pine published his seminal book Mass Customisation back in 1993. And sportswear giant Nike first launched its highly successful mass customisation platform Nike iD — allowing consumers to add a personalised look and feel to select shoe models — back in 1999. But according to Forrester, many mass customisation strategies have failed due to poor implementations, inability to manage cost and immature digital experiences.

Now, although only 6 percent of customers report having used a configurator (, for example) to customise products, the research firm believes that "mass customisation has finally hit an inflection point," for a couple of reasons: personalised digital experiences like Pandora and Facebook are raising consumer expectations, while the configurators themselves — the digital tools consumers use to visualize and build their products — are becoming cheaper, richer and easier to deploy.

For the luxury fashion industry, this represents a significant opportunity. "People are tired of putting up with the same thing being made en masse for the masses — this is particularly important for fashion where every body is unique," Joseph Pine told BoF. Indeed, when considered in the context of widespread sizing unreliability — nicely documented in a New York Times piece entitled "One Size Fits Nobody" — mass customisation extends the promise of clothing that's perfectly designed to fit the individual, at price points that are accessible to consumers who could never afford bespoke clothing.

But there is also another reason. On the one hand, purchasing luxury fashion is about being "in fashion" and participating in a group movement. But on the other hand, it's about expressing uniqueness. In a 2009 paper entitled "The Law, Culture and Economics Of Fashion," authors C. Scott Hemphill and Jeannie Suk called this behaviour "differentiation and flocking." It's a concept that Anna Wintour captured particularly well in the August 2008 issue of Vogue, noting in her editor's letter that what's admired in fashion is people simultaneously "looking on-trend and beyond trend and totally themselves."

In recent seasons, luxury fashion brands have launched customisation platforms like Louis Vuitton's Mon Monogram, which lets consumers add personal initials and colours to the brand's bags, and Prada Customize, which lets people add personal lettering to bags and configure their own shoes and sunglasses. But while these brands offer only light aesthetic customisation, British luxury brand Burberry has announced plans to go one step further, allowing true functional customisation. Last November, at the IHT Luxury Conference, chief executive officer Angela Ahrendts and chief creative officer Christopher Bailey revealed that the firm was launching an online initiative called Burberry Bespoke that would give consumers the ability to order their own customised trench coats, selecting styles, fabrics, colours, buttons, studs and other parameters. "There will be more than 12 million options," said Bailey.

But with so many options, brands face what Barry Schwartz called the paradox of choice, which, according to Forrester, can lead to abandoned efforts amongst consumers who fear that they might make mistakes, or that the process will require too much work. Luxury brands, in particular, face another hurdle: how can they ensure that the product being created is still in good taste?

Yet there's little doubt that mass customisation increases product differentiation and has the potential to drive higher customer satisfaction with the promise of a product that's exactly what the customer wants. A customised product also delivers a sense of accomplishment and personal value because the consumer has played an important role in designing it.

Mass customisation also has operational benefits. When consumers order a customised product, they pay for the product before it goes into production, limiting the need for firms to forecast demand and hold inventory. “Stop manufacturing in the hope of a future sale, holding that inventory for months, and then selling it at a loss,” advised Pine. “The savings on inventory and the increase in cash velocity should more than cover any increase in unit costs,” he continued.

But luxury brands aren't the only ones launching mass customisation platforms. San Francisco bag company Rickshaw invites consumers to customize an array of inexpensive messenger bags and technology sleeves, while Denim Refinery lets people "individualise" their old denim, breathing new life into old goods and proving that mass customisation has applications at all levels of the market.

So how might luxury brands differentiate their offerings?

Back when craft production was the dominant economic activity, luxury goods makers offered their clients more than a list of possible options from which they were to configure their own products. Alongside an array of options, they offered expert advice that was tailored to the individual, with whom they often had a personal relationship. Indeed, when a client went to a master craftsman, product design was a collaborative process that usually got better over time.

For luxury brands, critical to the success of their mass customisation strategies is what Pine, Don Peppers and Martha Rogers described in an important essay that appeared in the Harvard Business Review back in 1995 as "a learning relationship" between producer and consumers, "an ongoing connection that becomes smarter as the two interact with each other, collaborating to meet the consumer's needs over time."

Yet luxury is not just about perfectly serving the needs of the client. According to J.N. Kapferer and V. Bastien, authors of The Luxury Strategy, the luxury industry was born when artisans and craftsmen stopped simply carrying out the commissions of their clients, and instead, surprised them with their creativity: "No longer was the craftsman prepared to go cap-in-hand to visit the client; instead people went to see their latest collections, their new creations."

Indeed, it’s customisation platforms that have the ability to anticipate, and not just cater to, personal tastes in order to surprise consumers, as well as carry out their will, that may present the most potential for luxury fashion brands.

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