One might say the hype started when customers of luxury brands like Louis Vuitton and Hermes began requesting bespoke products in return for the thousands of dollars they spent on handbags or scarves. In Australia, allowing customers to choose the colour, material and style of a pair of shoes has catapulted online retailer Shoes of Prey from three people to almost 200 across five offices, and all in just seven years.
This is the power of personalisation or customisation, as it’s also known. Arguably the hottest trend in retail, it flips the switch from passive buyer to active purchaser and puts the consumer in charge of their consumption destiny. As a result, the way retailers do business has undergone a profound shift, even among jewellers whose wares have long been classed as personalised purchases.
Take Tiffany & Co, for example, which used Instagram to promote its personalised engraving services as ’thoughtful’ and ’artisanal’ additions to Christmas gifts. Likewise, Pandora Australia introduced a ‘Gift Bar’ pop-up store concept in time for the 2016 festive season, where customers could use an interactive, style-matching app to choose the perfect gift, after which Pandora supplied personalised gift-wrapping.
The shift towards personalisation says much about modern consumers; mostly that people like to add some personal flair to the products they buy and if retailers want to ensure customer loyalty, they’d better deliver.
Masters of their own destiny
According to UK research by Deloitte, 36 per cent of consumers are interested in personalised products or services and one in five interested consumers are willing to pay a 20 per cent premium to get it.
“Everyone wants to feel special,” Céline Fenech, consumer business research manager at Deloitte UK, says. “What used to be the privilege of a few has become increasingly affordable and accessible to many. Consumers have not only embraced customised products to express their individuality and enjoy a level of exclusivity but they are also rejecting mass-produced goods that ‘fit all’.”
Clinical psychologist Dr Jennifer Baumgartner is the US-based author of You Are What You Wear: What Your Clothes Reveal About You. She agrees that increased demand for personalisation signals growing dissatisfaction with mass-produced goods.
“It’s a response to fast-fashion,” Baumgartner says. “It’s been going on for a couple of years now as clothing has become more disposable, easier to get, cheaper, and, as the pace of trends is increasing, the rates of our trends are almost weekly now. Fast-fashion has a disposable quality but with customisation we’re able to personalise; we’re able to make something our own.”
Plus, she continues, personalised fashion is the freest form of self-expression: “It allows us to express emotion and be able to tailor what we wear to what speaks to us and our individuality.”
Does it follow that consumers are becoming increasingly narcissistic? Pippa Kulmar, a senior strategist at retail consultancy Retail Oasis, thinks so.
“It comes back to a question of identity and the fact that we are egocentric beings,” she says. “Having our names on cans of soft drink and the like signifies identity and who you are as a person.”
Indeed, studies show that narcissism has increased in the last three decades due to the rise of social media and self-promoting trends.
A report by Washington State University (WSU), University of St Gallen and Ruhr University Bochum, titled It is all about me: role of narcissism in customised products, found this trend in narcissism is causing retail and manufacturing businesses that offer customisable products to rethink their marketing strategies. Retailers are advised to offer products with a variety of customisable attributes like colour and style in markets populated by narcissists, as well as share information such as how frequently an option is selected by other consumers.
One of the report’s studies even demonstrated that businesses could put consumers into a “temporary narcissistic state of mind” with marketing techniques. WSU marketing professor and co-author of the report David Sprott suggests businesses could create narcissistic ’states’ with appropriate word choice.
“A Nike tagline ‘my mass-customised Nike shoes look amazing,’ could be changed to ‘my mass-customised Nike shoes impress,’ to induce a narcissistic state that encourages a consumer to self-design a unique product,” Sprott says.
Fashion psychologist Dawnn Karen, the US-based founder of Fashion Psychology Institute, believes focusing on oneself isn’t necessarily a negative trait and may in fact help to develop greater emotional connection to purchases, which bodes well for retailers.
“We’re more into ourselves,” she says. “With things like the selfie trend, we’re much more egocentric and narcissistic but I don’t want people to view that in a negative light.”
Instead, Karen states narcissism is a natural consequence of the move from mass-produced goods to personalised products that allows consumers to develop stronger connections to products.
In addition to the need to satisfy their narcissistic sides, could the preference for personalisation be attributed to a desire for consumers to get exactly what they want?
This would be the case if consumers knew their exact specifications; however, most consumers don’t have a clear idea of what they want a pair of shoes, a scarf or piece of jewellery to look like, University of Geneva economic psychologist Professor Benjamin Scheibehenne says.
What’s more, he believes personalisation generally only happens after consumers have made decisions about core product attributes like size and colour. Retailers must therefore be mindful of making sure they help consumers narrow down their core criteria before introducing a personalised option so as not to overcomplicate the process.
“There is a core of features that are really relevant and drive the decision process,” Scheibehenne says. “On top of these, there is a personalisation where you can freely choose a few aspects – you add a little feature so that it becomes a product that you can use to express your personality. I think these are two different processes that go one after the other.”
Dr Isabella Maggioni, a senior research consultant at the Australian Consumer, Retail and Services research unit at Monash Business School, agrees that buying personalised products can be a more onerous process for consumers than mass-produced goods. She says retailers like Shoes of Prey and Pandora experienced customers dropping out mid purchase because the sheer number of styles and combinations were so overwhelming. As such, they’ve had to simplify the buying process.
“What they’ve done is create some inspirations; some sample styles that a person can start modifying from,” Maggioni states. “This helps to reduce the level of effort, which could be mental effort but also physical effort to actually customise and put together a product. This is something that needs to be taken into account when retailers and/or brands decide to go down the road of personalisation.”
Loyalty to brand or self?
It may seem like personalisation drives self-loyalty rather than brand loyalty but Maggioni says putting the consumer in charge helps to strengthen ties with brands and retailers.
“Personalisation is definitely implemented for loyalty creation,” she says. “It’s about creating a strong relationship with customers but making the customer feel the brand understands them. When the customer has the opportunity to create their own style, they tend to come back to the same brand and they tend to customise products for other people if they’re doing gifts.”
Karen says personalised products encourage a stronger sense of ownership that boosts word-of-mouth referrals.
“Consumers have a strong sense of ownership and control that they contributed to the making of this product,” she explains. “Offering personalised products to consumers will create more loyalty and more tie to the brand, which will in turn increase sales because consumers want everyone to feel what they felt when they customised their bracelets – she’s got to tell her mum; she’s got to tell her sister; she’s got to tell her best friend; she’s got to tell everyone and she’s going to get her daughter one on her 10th birthday.”
Into the future
Long before personalised Coca-Cola cans and jars of Nutella appeared, consumers viewed jewellery as a personalised purchase; however, as personalisation influences the full retail spectrum, does jewellery risk losing its appeal as a truly personal gift?
Not at all, according to Fenech, who believes the rise of personalisation presents jewellers with opportunities rather than threats.
“It encourages more people to see personalisation as something accessible to all,” she says. “While some product categories such as jewellery are better positioned than others to offer customised products, there is room for many categories in this space as there are several degrees and drivers of personalisation.”
This is good news because product personalisation shows no signs of abating.
“It’s going to be one of the key themes, especially for this year,” Maggioni comments. “There are also some interesting developments in technology such as the application and potential of 3D printing – where it is becoming possible to create specific and customised products on the spot in store. This is something that is set to boom in the next few years.”
Further, Maggioni suggests personalisation perfectly taps into the desires of a ‘new’ generation of consumer: “If we look at the new generation, those specific needs of feeling unique, valued and original are key factors defining the new generation, in particular Generation Z.”
Ultimately, Fenech says niche categories like fashion and jewellery are well placed to thrive in a personalised consumption environment because they are products with which consumers develop an emotional attachment – narcissistic or otherwise.