It’s not exactly groundbreaking news that virtual reality has been around for a while, yet has only recently started seeing success as a technology. Mass customisation, too, is a concept that has been around for decades, but is only just starting to be taken seriously as an idea, because the technology to needed to make it happen is beginning to mature.
What Is Mass Customisation?
Back in 1993, Joseph Pine wrote a book about the concept, entitled, of course, Mass Customisation. In it, Pine writes of it as being ‘a new frontier in business competition’. He also wrote: ‘Customers don’t want choice. They just want exactly what they want’. This sentence sums up what mass customisation is all about: producing bespoke products on a mass-market level.
The idea is that the consumer has active input into the design and features of the product they wish to buy. With your smartphone, for example, you get to customise the device with your chosen apps to make the device completely tailored to your individual needs. The mass customisation concept envisages you being able to do much the same with any product you buy.
For it to be a practical option, mass customisation needs to happen within some boundaries. If we look at Nike’s long-popular customised footwear line, NIKEiD, we see that the brand allows a set of variations of colour and fabric, but doesn’t hand the reins fully to the customer. This allows the manufacturer to produce the trainers without too much strain on resources.
Offering a predefined set of variations rather than offering a blank canvas for customisation to the consumer is important if a brand is to avoid losing its defining features – if you hand over too much control, the brand is not yours anymore. Mass customisation must be a two-way exchange between the brand and consumer.
NIKEiD has been running (excuse the pun) since 1999. The biggest footwear retailer in the world has been using mass customisation for two decades. Converse, also owned by Nike, makes around 12% of all sales at its New York store as customised versions of its famous Chuck Taylor sneakers, demonstrating that the pull of customised products works as well in-store as online.
Mass Customisation and Manufacturing
A different manufacturing model is required for mass customisation. The mass production model, which is how most products are currently manufactured, relies on creating large volumes of each individual product in bulk, stockpiling it for sale. Whatever isn’t sold is excess inventory, that is then a costly burden for the manufacturer, both in terms of wasted resources and in storage costs.
The alternative is lean manufacturing, where product is manufactured on demand. This prevents stockpiling of excess product and the associated material and financial waste, whilst at the same time letting the consumer actively participate in choosing their purchase.
Uptake of the mass customisation model has been slow so far, partly down to the fact that the changes to the production line are considered a risk. The secret to making it work, however, is not to overhaul a brand’s existing production line, but to add a lean manufacture line for one aspect of the brand’s offering: customised versions. Just as NIKEiD have been doing for years.
A mass customised line commands a higher retail cost than mass-produced versions. This cost premium will, at first, cover the costs of initiating the line in the first place. Once this is established, the price premium on the customised products begins to turn a profit, as it takes no more money to produce than the mass-produced line.
Integrating this lean model for customisation with virtual reality software to allow customers to ‘design’ their own products is a strong win for omnichannel marketing and for user experience in general, whilst saving the costs associated with excess inventory and materials.
Retail brands know that they now have to engage their consumers across multiple platforms. Creating a seamless interaction across mobile, web, store, and beyond is now a key part of maximising sales, and integrating virtual reality as part of an omnichannel strategy is another tool in this arsenal.
Omnichannel is as much about personalisation as it is about cross-channel accessibility. This is where the overlap between mass customisation and omnichannel lies, at a crossroads of agency, choice, and user experience for the consumer. With VR as another channel, it’s possible to deliver all three of these whilst tailoring product to meet individual consumer needs.
Mass Customisation in Virtual Reality
Most examples of brands using mass customisation right now work with 3D rendering software. Brands like NIKEiD have the software integrated with their website, whilst some jewellers offer bespoke ring or watch design in-store using software on a desktop or tablet, for example.
An image of a product is visible in three dimensions, with the customisable elements clickable to swap in and out as desired. The user puts together their product by selecting their choice from each variable factor offered, then orders the product they’ve ‘designed’ directly.
Currently, this process necessarily takes place behind a screen. Virtual reality, however, offers the chance for full immersion in the product being designed. Clothes can be made to measure with unparalleled accuracy, tried on in VR, and options swapped in or out until the customer is completely satisfied. They can then, just as with on-screen 3D rendering software, simply hit ‘Order’ within virtual reality, and their custom-fit, bespoke product will be on its way.
It is, at its heart, a fully interactive, engaging shopping experience. Whilst screen-based customisation software is all very well, the ability to see and interact with a product as though it were actually in front of you takes this engagement to the next level.
VR is an omnichannel strategy that can bridge the gap between online and in-store experience, in many different ways. Whether a brand decides to host a fully virtual rendering of one of their stores for access at home complete with ready-made products for purchase, or a virtual space for customisation hosted in-store or via a VR app customers can access at home, virtual reality offers a tool no retailer should underestimate.
Other than the readiness of the technology, there are also cultural factors that lead us to believe that the mass customisation revolution is truly upon us.
The rising dominance of omnichannel marketing is one symptom of the cultural shift that’s opening the doors for mass customisation. The cause? Digital culture, epitomised by social media.
Social media has had a massive impact on consumer demand for personalised products. In an era where we can augment our identities online through the content we produce and share on social media, we want products that further allow us to express our identity in unique, personalised ways.
As our digital dependence moves beyond the screen and into VR, it’s likely that self-identity will become even more important, particularly given the more immersive nature of VR. If our identities are already formed by the digital space, imagine the possibilities as the net goes virtual.
In a society where identity is so important, it goes without saying that the ability to choose exactly what one wants is of utmost importance, too. We’ve already been conditioned into this to some extent by the algorithms we come across daily on online platforms like Netflix and Amazon, whose recommendation engines are designed to make it easier for us to access products and services that we’re most likely to be interested in.
It’s already possible for retailers to develop virtual reality stores where the products offered first are based on data gathered by integrated machine learning algorithms, similar to the recommendation engines of Netflix and Amazon. Customising products based on similar algorithms may just be the next logical progression for meeting customer demand at a deeper level than ever before.