More power to get what you want

Having it your way doesn't apply to just hamburgers anymore.

In fact it's a trend extending across the retail and consumer spectrum from books that feature your child's name, to custom-fit Levi's jeans, to Mercedes-Benzes with customized interior and exterior colors.

"Demand is out of the cage" as customers learn they can get something made just for them, says Ira Mattathia, president of Young and Rubicam's Brand Futures Group in New York, which conducted a survey about customized products.

Customization "is very trendy right now," says Perry Lowe, a business professor at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass. "Custom products are a status symbol."

What's behind the trend is technology. It's not so much the ability to make customized products, but the ease of collecting data about what customers want, he says.

The Internet provides the most examples, with several newspapers (including this one) offering personalized e-mail editions tailored to readers' interests.

Other Web services offer price quotes on airline tickets to your favorite destination, let you know when an item you want goes on sale, or send a personalized greeting card.

Many of these services are free, supported by advertisers willing to pay dearly to reach just the eyes they want.

The Information Age has also made it easier for companies to assemble customized products.

Swan Publishing offers customized romance novels. Put your name in as the hero or heroine, and pick your own level of sensuality.

Mattel sells customized Barbie dolls on www.barbie.com. Visitors can pick a doll's clothes, hairstyle, eye and skin color, and facial expression.

Dell Computer is known for building systems to order for customers, lowering its costs and raising its profits in the process.

Custom manufacturers won't really build anything you want. They mix and match a collection of stock components to suit your needs.

What they offer is service. Once you've ordered something, firms know your preferences and put them in their database. Then they can tailor their business to make it easier for you to favor them over a competitor.

They can charge you extra, because you waste less time shopping for cheaper alternatives that don't fit as well.

Levi's Original Spin jeans let customers mix and match - baggy or tight seats; wide, tapered, or straight legs, zipper or button fly, and your favorite color. Of course you have to go to select stores for a measurement. You get a special code to reorder quickly. The jeans cost $5 to $15 more than Levi's mass-produced jeans.

Even big-ticket, manufactured goods like cars are available for more customization.

Last year, Audi introduced Atmospheres customized interior selection across its model line. Three interior packages each offer different wood trim, plastic colors, and aluminum. Each provides several upholstery choices. BMW and Mercedes-Benz followed suit this year.

Marketers hope that giving buyers more control over the cars they order will make them feel special.

That's why individualized products and services will snowball, the Young and Rubicam report predicts. Companies will rush to outdo each other in catering to customers.

It's a tactic small retailers have used for years.

Perfumemaker Sephora offers personalized fragrances.

Others allow buyers to build their products themselves.

Beadworks stores in cities nationwide have hundreds of bins filled with different beads that customers can string together into whatever they want to make.

At the Build-A-Bear Workshop in St. Louis, teddy-bear lovers can build any stuffed animal they want.

And a Swiss restaurant, Marche Mvenpick, which recently opened its first US store in Boston, gives diners a wide choice of individually prepared foods and dining atmospheres.

What's new is big mass marketers developing customized product lines to improve their margins.

Customized products "will have some market penetration, but ultimately won't be revolutionary," Dr. Lowe says.

Not everyone may want individualized products. For example, custom-built houses have become all the rage in trendy neighborhoods. But first-time buyers may cherish the American dream of fitting in with families in suburban tracts, Lowe says. And teenagers are likely to prefer the latest fashion sweeping the schoolyard to anything that makes them stand out.

That's why customized products will remain a niche, Lowe says, and an upscale one at that.

*Comments to evarts@csmonitor.com

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