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Customization: Craze or Here to Stay?

Millennials are unique unicorns—or so the data shows. A 2015 study on millennials by American Express found that almost half of the millennials surveyed expect brands to customize offers to suit their needs, placing pressure on brands to be connected, creative and nimble.

It should come as no surprise that a consumer base who grew into their incomes during a time when marketers described everything from sandwich menus to Instagram feeds as “curated,” would also expect their wardrobes to be curated with one-of-a-kind items. Coach launched a customization station in its New York City flagship last year, allowing shoppers to personalize nine components that make up a handbag. Kate Spade touts stick-on ornaments that adhere to wallets and handbags, and sells handbag straps separately from bags to create a custom mix-and-match look. Meanwhile, interest in denim is revived thanks in part to consumers wanting to add personal statements to jean jackets via patches, pins and graffiti-style lettering.

“I think consumers want to have what’s on trend and what’s the latest trend, but in the last couple of years [shoppers] have gravitated towards making it their own and a bit more unique,” said Beth Goldstein, NPD Group executive director, industry analyst, accessories and footwear. “We’re starting to see it more in footwear.”

From one-on-one time with a designer, to applying stick-on stars and stripes to canvas sneakers, customization currently takes on many definitions in the footwear industry, but it began with sneakers.

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Customization has tempted consumers since 2000 when Nike rolled out customizable options through NikeID. What began as an online concept that allowed everyday shoppers (not just professional athletes) to personalize select styles with a limited range of colors and materials, has since ballooned into an endless aisle of choices. In fact, the amateur designer can even select which technology—Nike Free, Lunarlon, Nike Air or Flyknit—he or she would like to have the shoe built on for approximately the same price as an “off the rack” pair.

That ability to influence a shoe’s design has trickled into designer fashion, but on a smaller scale. Prada launched the ‘Made to Order Décolleté’ collection in 2014, which now allows consumers to personalize the materials and heel height of up to 18 different styles. This year, Stuart Weitzman offered fans the opportunity to customize its Spring ’17 backless loafer. And virtually every household footwear brand in the book, from Sperry to Ugg, now provide fans the chance to customize their signature styles.

Shoes of Prey might be a shining example of how customization can be scaled for the fashion footwear category. The Australian company, which began online in 2009 by allowing consumers to choose the shape, color and heel height of their shoe, launched shop-in-shops in Nordstrom locations across the U.S. in 2014. A year later, the luxury department store gained majority stake in the shoe tailor, investing $15.5 million as part of a syndicate of investors.

According to a 2016 press release, shoppers have designed six million shoes with Shoes of Prey and business hit the multi-million-dollar revenue in under two years.

“Customization does so many extraordinary things in terms of giving people exactly what they want. Connecting with the person, [and knowing] exactly what they’re looking for. And [customization reduces] so much waste in the world, because we’re only making the shoes that people want,” said Jodie Fox, co-creator of Shoes of Prey. “We’re not taking a bet on one design, and praying that people will buy it afterwards, make a ton of them and shipping them all over the world. It is made for you.”

A 2013 Bain Consumer study said shoppers who designed their own shoes gave companies a 50 percent higher Net Promoter Score (NPS), a standard way to measure customer loyalty, than customers who bought non-customized items from the same brand. Bain reported that higher NPS usually means higher sales, referrals and lifetime customer value.

Sperry’s decision to move into customization was easy given its loyal fan base. The Wolverine Worldwide—owned brand allows customers to personalize fan favorite styles, including the Authentic Original boat shoe for men and women and the women’s Saltwater boot.

“Our intrepid consumer is our inspiration point for everything that we do,” said Stacey Howe, Sperry senior director of e-commerce. “In a recent Wolverine Worldwide study, we found that 74 percent of consumers value function over style, while at the same time, 72 percent demand that their footwear makes a fashion statement and communicates something about who they are. The customizable offering was our response to this demand. It gives Sperry fans the opportunity to curate their own look and showcase their individuality without sacrificing the functionality they’ve come to expect from Sperry’s purpose-built collections.”

Sperry’s research also shows millennials are more likely to make a purchase if the product is personalized to their liking. “Given this insight, we expect that customization and personalization will remain a core part of retail strategy across not only the fashion industry, but retail as a whole,” Howe said.

The one caveat with customized footwear is the length of time it requires to produce it, which conflicts with millennial consumers’ “see now, buy now” mentality. Sperry estimates three to four weeks on their website. “Because each shoe is produced to the customer’s desired specifications, our customized products take a bit longer to get to our consumer than other products available [online],” Howe said.

Shoes of Prey guarantees delivery in two weeks. It takes up to eight weeks for Prada to ship custom orders. And those Stuart Weitzman’s loafers? That will take you 8-10 weeks.

Meanwhile, brands like Wolverine 1000 Mile, which launched customization in 2016, have managed to trim some wait time by producing custom footwear locally.

NPD’s Goldstein said some brands use customization as an opportunity to produce some small-scale product in the U.S. Personalization and the ability to make them close to home is a win-win for both the consumer and the brand. “We haven’t found consistently that consumers are willing to pay much more for [Made in USA], but they do like things made in the U.S.,” she said.

That feel-good story is partly what makes customization worthwhile for brands. The cost of producing one-off product will likely never turn into big business for any traditional footwear company, but it stirs up interest the same way any other marketing line item might. “Once again, it’s buzz, it’s cool, it’s an experience for you [the consumer] as well. It’s much more involvement into the purchase decision and buying process,” Goldstein said.

For customers looking for a quick and affordable fix, Trend:Bar offers personalized—not permanent—solutions. The company, founded by sisters Kayla and Lindsey Schwartz, takes a D.I.Y. approach to customization by selling individual shoe charms, stick-on patches and removable shoe tongues for under $20. The company recently announced it inked a deal with DSW to bring Trend:Bar kiosks to various locations, meaning shoppers can instantly update their purchases with personalized flair.

Trend:Bar showcases their footwear accessories on plain white sneakers and shower slides—simple and dare we say “basic” styles that are swamping the market. Could the demand for personalized footwear be consumers’ rebellion against the homogenized “trends” that footwear brands have churned out in recent seasons? It’s a possibility, says Kayla Schwartz. “I am just so sick of everyone looking the same,” she quipped.

Lindsey Schwartz attributes the influx of customization to the “see now, buy now” movement. “Season-less has become a thing in fashion, with everybody,” she said. “Men’s and women’s collections are shown on the runway at the same time. Consumers are less patient with items coming out. You see it right away—an Instagrammer wearing it before it hits stores.”

As for the future of customization, NPD’s Goldstein thinks that the craze will slow down but not disappear. “I think it’ll be exciting for a while,” she said. “It’ll level off and then there will be [customization] that exists ongoing—maybe some in the athletic space.”