Pioneered in Jeans, Customization Spreads to Shoes and Fragrances

Having a hard time finding jeans that fit? Levi Strauss & Co. will tailor a pair to your exact measurements. Always wanted to create your own signature fragrance? Garden Botanika will do it for you. And how about some custom-made shoes? Custom Foot offers 160 different styles.

In an era when shoppers increasingly want more for less, a small but growing number of retailers are rolling out everything from jeans to cosmetics made to consumers' individual specifications. And they're doing it almost as quickly and cost-effectively as they can mass-produce.

"What mass customization does is it greatly reduces ... customer sacrifice - the difference between what a standardized product provides to everybody and what you actually want," says B. Joseph Pine II, president of Strategic Horizons LLP, a Cleveland consulting firm.

As the retail industry struggles to reinvent itself, customization can help build consumer loyalty and eliminate having to move merchandise nobody wants. "I believe it will be as important in the 21st century as mass production was in the 20th century," Mr. Pine contends.

Levi Strauss pioneered the concept with its Personal Pair jeans for women, which it launched two years ago at its stores across the country. For women, in particular, finding jeans that actually fit correctly can be almost impossible. According to Levi's, women try on 15 to 20 pairs of jeans before buying a new pair.

Enter custom-fit jeans. First, a sales clerk takes four basic measurements and enters the information into a computer. The computer suggests a prototype jean for the customer to try on. (On average, customers try on two to three pairs before finding the right fit.) After selecting the color, the order is sent electronically to a Levi's factory in Tennessee. Within two weeks, the jeans are shipped to the customer.

Today, Personal Pair jeans account for about a quarter of all women's jeans sold at Levi's stores in the United States. The San Francisco company just opened its first store devoted solely to Personal Pair jeans in Dallas this month, and plans to offer customized jeans for men next year.

Kimberly Daniels, who is being fitted for a pair on this particular day in Boston, says she often resorts to buying men's jeans because they fit better in the hips. But she has to take in the legs. "I end up looking like I'm wearing a pair of jodhpurs," she quips.

The customized jeans cost more - $65 compared with $50 for a pair off the shelf - but Ms. Daniels doesn't seem to mind. "In my office we dress casually, so I would spend $65 on a pair of casual pants anyway," says Daniels, who works at a design firm.

Another company, Custom Foot based in Westport, Conn., has also capitalized on consumers' demand for better fit. The company, which opened its first store in March, now has shoe stores across the country.

Custom Foot offers men and women 160 different styles ranging from sandals and loafers to wingtips and pumps. The average price is $140. To get the best size, a computer-scanning device generates 13 measurements for each foot. The data are transmitted to one of seven factories in Italy, and the shoes arrive about three to four weeks later.

The wait factor doesn't seem to be a drawback. "People tend to think, 'Well of course it's going to take some time, or else it's not special," Pine says. "When people get used to mass customized goods," he adds, "then time will become more important."

STILL today's time-deprived shoppers sometimes don't want to invest the time up front for something personalized.

Garden Botanika, a bath and body products store based in Redmond, Wash., has been offering customized perfumes, shampoos, and bath gels since 1990. Shoppers can select from more than 50 different scents - everything from mango to musk and have their products made up on the spot. "It's not something people always have a lot of time for," says marketing manager Shelley Lynch, adding that the customized side of the business represents less than 10 percent of total sales.

Companies, though, point to numerous advantages. For one, because products are sold before they are made, inventory costs are dramatically reduced. Such a service also builds customer loyalty. As more companies come on board, consumers eventually may not settle for merchandise made for the masses. "Just like when customers began to demand high-quality, low-cost products from all companies, ... the same thing is going to happen with customization," Pine says. "Consumers are going to get used to getting exactly what they want from certain retailers ... and they will stop putting up with standardized off-the-rack goods from other companies."

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