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Customisation is transforming the retail industry -- and it's showing no sign of slowing

Lara Worthington for The Daily Edited. Photo: Facebook/ The Daily Edited.

Want a personalised handbag, or DIY shoes? How about a surfboard with your face on it, or your initials on your iPhone case?

This is all possible with a booming trend in retail, known as customisation.

It’s customer service at its finest, and with the help of advances in mobile technology it’s now possible with a single click of a button, transforming pret-a-porter and other mass-produced products to bespoke designs in the process.

In Australia, it kicked off with a startup called Shoes of Prey.

For the first time, customers were able to choose the style of shoe, including the material and colour they wanted it made in, before it was delivered straight to their door.

In just seven years, Shoes of Prey has gone from just three people in a lounge room to five offices globally with nearly 200 staff. Founder Jodie Fox moved her HQ from Sydney to Los Angeles last year, opened a factory in China and secured a major partnership deal with US retail giant Nordstrom.

Since then other Australian entrepreneurs have caught a whiff of Fox’s success and sought to pave their own way.

Why now?

One of these businesses riding the customisation wave is Disrupt.

According to the founder of the bespoke sports gear business, Gary Elphick, the trend was born from two things: consumer demand and technological development.

“People have always wanted things custom made for them, however they have foregone that in the past in favour of mass-produced goods made overseas at a lower price. Now we have the technology to enable custom made whilst maintaining high quality and at the same price point of mass produced goods,” he said.

“The other thing adding to the trend is social media, with the convergence of technology there is a constant need to be showing what makes you unique and different and to be the first to be onto a new style trend.

“On demand manufacturing and customisation allows you to always be on style trend and show off your personality in a meaningful way.”

But like with all new markets, there’s a period of growing and adjusting. Elphick started out marking custom surfboards. He has plans to branch out into skateboards, snowboards and yoga mats next.

And like Shoes of Prey, which realised early on that the business was only going to succeed if every aspect of the process was customer-centric, Disrupt learned more was not always better.

“When we first launched we had a customer-facing 3D printing software that allowed them to be the shaper and engineer of their own boards,” Elphick said.

“What we’ve learnt is that people want to have the options to customise but want to ensure the integrity of the physical engineering so for us that’s been working with long-standing and well-regarded shapers to create thousands of shape and size variations and helping customers tweak those.”

Photo: Disrupt.

Elphick admits that it’s a challenge to educate customers who stick to traditional retail purchasing straight off the rack.

“A challenge for any customisation company is in educating people on a new way,” he says, adding that some consumers haven’t yet realised that they can “have their cake and eat it too”.

“What’s helping is that there are a few other big brands catching on, you had Coke’s ‘design your own Coke’, Nutella at Christmas, Subaru did a trial on design your own car online and there’s lots of design and visualise your own kitchen.

“This is a movement, not a fad.”

That hunger for personalised products could be attributed to a number of factors, from the evolution of retail, aided by the rise in technology, to the evolution of the consumer and a desire to stand out in a market where savvy Chinese businesses made a fortune from copycat products and designer knockoffs.

Either way, that demand turned Mon Purse from a one-person online startup to a blossoming omni-channel business in just two years, with its own standalone store and another concept store in Myer, Sydney.

In January co-founder and CEO Lana Hopkins signed a new, longer deal with Myer, and will roll out new stores in the retailer’s centres.

According to Andrew Shub, Mon Purse’s co-founder and COO, and also founder of women’s fashion retailer QueensPark, the partnership, and other successes, has put the business years ahead of its projections, enabling them to start a second round of funding.

But it hasn’t been without challenges.

New players, new processes

With disruption comes the need for new processes to handle the demands, speed and innovation of something like customisation.

“Manufacturers are used to mass producing bags of the same dimensions and specs, they’re not used to making just 500 units of completely different bags,” said Hopkins.

This means startups are having to turn to third party operators to host the technology they need, or create it themselves — neither a particularly cheap process.

For Hopkins, who designed both Mon Purse’s technology architecture of and the entire concept from scratch, the latter path was a more suitable option.

“We really want to lead in that space so we’re big on developing the technology that will put us at the forefront of innovation,” she says.

“I’ve designed a system that is going to give us efficiency because it’s a completely difference way of doing things.

“After looking at what is really going to strengthen our platform, we’re building our own ERP (enterprise resource planning) and customisation system, as opposed to tapping into plugins. That’s because of the complexity of what we are doing.”

Andrew Shub says the challenge is to not only make the system better for customers, but also faster.

“That’s why each little process we break it down, we ask what we can automate, what can we use technology for, how can we be better, we won’t give up that challenge as we grow because we see the benefits of it already,” he said.

The Mon Purse website. Photo: Facebook/ Mon Purse.

New processes, new strategies

These new-era businesses are just transforming business structures with technology, marketing strategies are also being reinvented.

The rise in popularity of social media platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat means e-commerce startups, and customisation businesses in particular, have found new ways to leverage their online audience in a way that will promote their products and still keep people engaged.

Alyce Tran, founder of The Daily Edited, which customises leather accessories such as clutches and soft laptop cases, explained to Business Insider she wins over new consumers. It’s a familiar marketing strategy in a new guise.

Tran focusses on “digital influencers” to advertise her products on social media.

“It’s really just basics… and very old school in some ways,” Tran says.

“Think about Marlboro cigarettes, and having a James Dean figure smoking them -– this sort of marketing is old.”

The difference now is digital influencers are as important in the marketing mix as Hollywood actors or models, and have equally mammoth social media followings.

Last year TDE collaborated with Lara Worthington on a LaraXTDE collection. In return, Worthington posted photos of Tran’s products on her Instagram account.

The Australian model has almost half a million followers.

While Tran won’t discuss sales figures following the collaboration, she did say the business did three times what she had estimated it would do in December following the partnership.

“We’re exceeding expectations, everyone who looks at our numbers are gobsmacked,” she said.

In fact, the business is doing so well Tran traded in her job as a lawyer to work full-time on her startup because she was making more a day from TDE than she did in a month as a lawyer.

Big business wants in

Customisation and digital influencers are two strategies that go hand-in-hand to enhance a consumer’s experience.

Both initiatives make the consumer feel more connected to the brand, by allowing them to be part of the design process, as well as seeing celebs do the same thing that they are doing.

It perhaps explains why the likes of Myer and David Jones are bringing on customisation startups, seeking to remain agile and innovative as retailing faces its own disruption overhaul.

“These are smart retailers,” says Mon Purse’s Shub. “They see that world is changing and they see that the whole landscape is changing.

“They [Myer] understand that an experience like this is foremost in a consumer’s mind and retail is changing and its disrupting and the consumer has changed ahead of the where the retailers are.

“I’m from a traditional retail background, and partnering with Myer on this, who has a traditional understanding of retail as well, it’s opened all of our eyes that there are better ways, and other ways, to do things.

“If you harness technology intelligently you can really alter the landscape quite dramatically.”

Mon Purse has also teamed up with celebrities, including global fashion influencer Margaret Zhang.

“Myer recognises that access to that world, that dark art of Instagram, is very hard for traditional retailers to do… and bold relationships with people who have accessed that space gives them a fast-track, and ultimately both parties win.”

And when it comes to incumbents bringing on customisation capabilities, it’s not just in the fashion industry.

McDonalds ‘built it yourself’ burgers. Photo: Facebook/ McDonalds.

Just look at McDonald’s. Billions of Big Macs later, it went bespoke last year in a bid to revitalise a tired brand.

“The ability to customise adds value as it shows each item has been handmade for you,” explains Gary Elphick of Disrupt.

“I think that’s the brand perception Maccas are going after, personally I prefer design your own salad over fast food.

“As the market gets bigger it helps all of us. Customers go out and search for a better alternative to mass-produced goods.”

And Shub agrees — competition is the best thing for the market.

“We see competition as good. We want to be challenged. I think the market is in such an infancy that any entrant to the market is actually doing us a massive favour,” he says.

“Think about it like social media, going back 10 years when Facebook was the first. Everyone else did Facebook a massive favour because it enhanced and convinced the customer base that this was something real.

“If the customisation space is growing as a marketplace, and we ourselves are growing within that, then that’s fantastic.

As customisation becomes the new norm and digitally savvy consumers come to expect it as a standard feature for a range of products, the challenge for traditional mass production retailers is to find ways of matching that specialist offering. Or get out of the way.

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