Big players took a big interest in mass customization shortly after the web emerged, particularly Procter & Gamble Co. with its 1999 launch of Reflect.com beauty products. But while Reflect and other efforts by major marketers never got much traction, smaller players are showing signs that the concept can work on a more modest scale.
One is eSalon, five years into a mass-customized hair colorant business that has 140,000 subscribers for 110,000 unique color combinations. Now the company is launching The Match-Up -- aimed at the $10 billion market for shampoo, conditioner and styling products. This time it's taking a more measured approach that includes 30 stock-keeping-units. It's also using an online question-and-answer configurator that feeds a proprietary algorithm to match people's hair-care needs with products and delivery schedules so they never run out.
Dollar Shave Club is taking a similar approach for its Boogie's men's hair styling products, launched earlier this year with an online configurator to help men bypass the tangle of often confusingly labeled and merchandised products in stores.
"Personal care could ultimately be one of the biggest categories, but in general mass customization hasn't taken off," said Frank Piller, who literally wrote the book on the concept in 1997, is part of MIT's Smart Customization Group and teaches management at RWTH Aachen University in Germany. "Often it does not provide enough value. There's a lot of customization out there on the web that doesn't solve any customer's problem."
Configurator-Database.com lists nearly 1,000 mass-customization configurators, but most are "very nichey," Mr. Piller said. He does see promise in some, such as recent startups that create custom-fitted earbuds or Sols.com, with custom-made orthotic inserts. And Simpress, a large custom printer acquired earlier this year by Samsung, shows the concept can work in the business-to-business category.