Whatever happened to mass customization?

8 min readOct 31, 2014

and why the ‘build your own’ model has failed


When we founded Treehouse Logic back in 2009, we were working on the assumption that a growing number of retailers would soon want to offer a “build your own” product experience on their website. Early pioneers of the online product customization movement like Nike (design your own shoe), Dell (configure your own computer), BMW (design your own car) and Timbuk2 (design your own messenger bag) had already determined that the best way to differentiate their product was to offer customers the power to control the aesthetic of the product themselves rather than forcing them to select from a list of pre-defined, standard products. The Internet had evolved to the point where these retailers could develop complicated visual configurators for their ecommerce sites.

Why customization?

Have it your way!

The consumer appeal of customization was simple and obvious: Don’t just choose a product from our limited selection, design your own version of our product. It’s fun and you’ll get exactly what you want. The customization model had many potential upsides including reduced returns and reduced inventory. Also, custom products historically demand premium prices.

Certainly, the Burger King “have it your way” model was appealing to consumers for a variety of reasons

Unlimited permutations. Don’t feel limited by our selection; there are literally millions of potential combinations!

Made to order just for you. Don’t buy products that were generically manufactured. Your custom product will be made specifically for you!

Get creative. It’s so fun to play with the product visualization tool!

The vision: Death to generic products

Our theory was that ‘mass customization’ was set to become the next chapter of the industrial revolution. The antiquated forecasting and mass production retail model was on a path to extinction. No longer would shoppers go into malls to choose from hundreds of generically produced items.

Custom dress shirt

Instead, the core consumer model would be inverted: shoppers would first specify their exact needs and preferences, then the one-of-a-kind product would be produced on-demand. While Treehouse Logic set out to pioneer the customization movement from a platform perspective, many retailers joined the movement with the hopes of disrupting their specific vertical markets. Memorable examples included chocolate, granola, cars, bicycles, jewelry, mattresses, and of course clothing. Fashion, in particular, was ripe for disruption. The most crowded sector of mass customization was dress shirts, suits, and jeans.

While the first movers in the product customization space had paid millions for custom-coded, clunky Flash visual configurators, the next generation of retailers would find a way to build faster, more flexible version of their own customization tool for a fraction of the cost. We saw our opportunity – platformize the HTML-based product configurator, just like Surveymonkey had for surveys, Mailchimp had for email campaigns, Salesforce.com had for CRM, etc. As I’ve written on Quora, it didn’t work out.

So why isn’t product customization successful?

Fast forward to 2014. What happened to the customization revolution? Where did it fail? What happened to Forrester’s bold claim in 2011 that “mass customization is (finally) the future of products?”

And how about Emily Flynn’s book in 2012 on how “customization is the future of business?”

Ecommerce is about conversion

For one, product customizers have fail miserably as sales conversion tools. They don’t move the needle nearly as much as other basic ecommerce conversion tools like free shipping, free-returns, one-click purchasing, coupons, personalization (targeted recommendations), deep discounts, and daily deals. Not to mention reviews, ratings, and high resolution product images. All these ecommerce methods have proven to lift sales conversion because they create valuable incentives that appeal to a broad audience.

Too much work and too much stress for the customer

For the mainstream, interactive configurators were doomed from the start. The process of “designing your x” forces the customer to do MORE work, rather than less work. A lesson of the champions of the consumer web is that REDUCING friction is the key to sales conversion. Ironically, putting a consumer in front of a powerful product customizer causes anxiety because their design skills and patience tend to be limited. As a result, after a few clicks into the process they will be stuck and frustrated.

Improving usability by minimizing steps is in itself value creation. The best shopping experiences are convenient, fast, and less stressful.

Successful ecommerce models

Beyond the catalog approach of leaders like Amazon, eBay and Walmart, here are few ecommerce models that have grown in popularity.

Curated products

Curated products

Fundamentally, curated products eclipsed the customization movement. First Groupon for daily deals then Fab.com for well-designed products + daily deals. Curation and personalization are actually quite similar. In both cases the brand is doing the matching and recommending on behalf of the customer. The shopper is left with a one-click decision, do you want this highly targeted product yes or no? Easy.

Subscription commerce

Subscription models have had some success. Like a wine-club, customers receive a monthly package of recommendations from a team of stylists. Trunk club and Birchbox are examples. The subscription model offers another level of convenience.


The value-add here is no need to select from pages of options, simply take what you like out of the box and return the rest by closing the box and returning it to postman. This is shopping for people that don’t like shopping. Easy.


Probably the most successful shopping sites and apps aren’t even ecommerce sites. Social networks like Facebook, Pinterest , Instagram, and Polyvore have built beautiful engagement tools that let users like, share, pin, arrange, organize, and discover products. Instead of trying to capture revenue from users by driving them to a click-to-buy experience, these social networks profit from retailers by charging them for advertising. Or, in some cases via an affiliate model.

Polyvore set

Mobile, location, social…

Of course there are a myriad of popular ecommerce tools that leverage the power of mobile, location (GPS) and social. Rather than going into detail about these models, I’ll just point out that they don’t have anything to do with product customization. The theme is increased convenience.

Marketplace of experts

Lots of specialized marketplaces have popped up recently. Laurel and Wolf, for example, has disrupted the interior design market. Instead of trying to design your own room, customers (as buyers) submit photos of their room along with any inspiration, dimensions, etc. Designers (as sellers) provide design boards as bids for the business. The buyer selects their favorite design and works with the chosen designer. Similar to how 99Designers connects customers with graphic designers. In this case the customization (ie design) is done by the experts, as it should be.

Laurel and Wolf

So is customization dead?

In the above examples, the brand does the heavy lifting — whether it’s using algorithms to make targeted recommendations, using location to show product near you, or by providing access to the skill sets of personal stylists or designers. Instead of shifting the burden of product design to the consumer, the brand is more responsible for content, merchandizing, community management and design than ever before.

So product customization, while appealing on paper because of its intrinsic efficiency, is still only valuable to a subset of the pickiest customers. That ~10% of customers that want complete control and can invest hours of their own time and creative energy customizing products will be well served with a complex, browser-based product configurator, but the vast majority of shoppers will quickly lose patience and choose the path of least resistance, ie the curated and well-designed mass produced product.

Fashion Playtes: The Gap killer

Customization will always have appeal, especially as it gets easier, faster, and more visually appealing. Rather than fading away entirely, customization continues to get press coverage as seen by this September 2014 Mashable round-up of custom clothing retailers. Customization as an ecommerce model will never die, but pioneers of the ‘mass customization’ movement will agree it has not and may never go mainstream.

Customization darling Fashion Playtes raised $4M in 2010 and has since shut down.

Custom is a powerful branding element

Timbuk2's email campaign

Don’t tell brands like Timbuk2 and Hem that customization is dead. For many brands, customization is the core ingredient of the brand strategy. Brands that feature customization value self-expression and individuality. Even if very few people actually buy those custom products, the ROI of a customization experience is still strong because customization provides a strong narrative. Customization becomes the backbone of marketing messages and provides an endless supply of high quality content to sprinkle throughout email campaigns, social feeds, and merchandizing pages.

What about the fit problem?

Body scanning? Not so much.

The fit problem and the virtual-try-it-on market are sub-topics of the mass customization story. Finding clothes that fit on the Internet has always been a problem. Currently, the most popular solution is the Warby Parker model, which is to send multiple sizes via in the mail, have the customer try them on, then have them return the items that don’t fit. Fit is still very much an experiential part of shopping. None of the measure-yourself or body-scanning experiments have gained any traction. Yet.

Customization is dead, long live customization!




Startups, Product Management, technology. Huge fan of functional democracy.