What is the first thing that comes to the mind when you put the words 'mass' and 'customization' together? An oxymoron, what else! Customization is possible only on an individual level and the connotation of a mass market or a mass product is anything but individualization or personalization. So, am I talking dystopian fiction when I tell you that I am about to embark upon a discussion of mass customization of commercial offerings? Let's find out, shall we?
The Concept of Mass Customization
Mass customization is a manufacturing and marketing technique that makes it possible to mold a commodity or service such that it meets very specific needs of an individual consumer unit but is available at the price of a mass-produced commercial item. This phenomenon is made possible by technologies like lean production, product modularization, computerized production methods, etc. Mass customization, to be successful, needs to fulfill two objectives.
First, a manufacturer must identify the opportunities for customization and spend time, money, and efforts for investigating all aspects of such opportunities in order to understand how to leverage them to create value for the customer. Such value must involve smooth, swift, and pocket-friendly transactions for the consumers as well as the manufacturer.
The second objective is for the manufacturer to work out and set up a manageable cost structure and cost level irrespective that can be sustained even when the complexity of the manufacturing process increases as a result of trying to match mass prices and volumes with tailor-made outputs.
Different Ways in Which Mass Customization is Possible
Mass customization is possible in four major ways. Customers and their needs have grown exponentially diverse over the centuries and will continue to grow even more diverse in the times ahead. Therefore, it only makes sense mass customization is not approached in a one-size-fits-all manner. Discussed below are the four distinct approaches that manufacturers can choose from to customize their offerings for the masses.
Adaptive customization is the approach where the manufacturer makes products which are enabled with features that allow the end user to personalize it if necessary and as fit. A good example of this mass customization approach is an adjustable office chair. It is manufactured keeping in mind the different needs of different people from an office chair. A working individual spends a lot of time on an office chair and as such, needs more than just a piece of furniture to sit on. The same chair design may not provide sufficient comfort and convenience to every executive in an office. This will, in turn, adversely affect their performance in the office. A good adjustable office chair is capable of being customized by the end user in many different ways. Its back height and angle, arm height, seat height, etc., can be adjusted differently for executives of varying heights and seating habits.
As the name suggests, collaborative customization happens when a producer or service provider collaborates with individual consumers to put together a product that is tailor-made for the latter. This mass customization approach works best when the consumers of a particular product are not really comfortable selecting from a plethora of available options which seem confusing to them. Such customers are more comfortable articulating their specific needs and they expect the producer or service provider to put together a product that meets these specific needs. A good example is an optician who helps customers pick the right eyeglasses by taking the latter's pictures and noting down their functional and cosmetic expectations from a pair of eyeglasses. The optician, then, uploads the customers' pictures on a computer and digitally superimposes pictures of a selection of eyeglass frames and lenses over them to give the customers an idea of how they would look with these glasses. This way, the customers can narrow down their choices and get tailor-made glasses that fit their individual specifications.
Cosmetic customization is required where a product has the same use or set of uses for all end users and the only area of personalization desired is the appearance or the presentation of the product. This is achieved through marketing activities, packaging, presenting, and displaying the product differently to different customers, based on their cosmetic requirements. A good example is a cell phone company which markets the same model of cell phones to teenagers by highlighting its instant messaging and social networking features and targets business executives by highlighting its office and document management applications and email accessibility features.
'Transparent customization' is actually a misnomer. The whole concept of transparent customization revolves around not making it obvious to the customer that the product is customized. In this approach, a product is differentiated for different customer segments in the target market. It is the opposite of cosmetic customization insomuch as in the latter, only the appearance is modified but the base product remains the same while in the former, the base product differs for different customers without changing the presentation. Transparent customization is practical where the customer's needs and predilections are predictable and the customer does not like stating their preferences explicitly. A good example of this approach is the hospitality industry where hotel and resort chains maintain sophisticated databases through which they can predict a customer's preferences and customizes the experiences of individual customers accordingly, without making this obvious to the customer. Also, education and training service providers customize their courses and training modes to suit different learning audiences, without letting the audience know that what they are attending is not a standard thing.