March 28, 2002, 12:00 AM

A Fitting Offer

The impersonal, self-service web may not seem the best place to sell custom-fit clothing. But some retailers are finding the web suits customers well.

Mass retailing might seem to be at odds with the concept of customization-mass production depends on keeping products as standard as possible, while customization requires that products be retooled individually to meet different consumers’ unique requirements.

Nevertheless, a few e-retailers of apparel are using mass customization to distinguish themselves from the competition, leverage the channel’s interactive capabilities and make customers loyal for life. “Our strength is offering things online that you can’t get in the brick-and-mortar environment and this is certainly one of them,” says eBags Inc.’s vice president of marketing Peter Cobb.

EBags is one of a handful of e-retailers experimenting with selling customized apparel products online. These pioneers’ efforts range from letting customers design their own gear online to cutting and sewing pants to the precise shape of a shopper’s derriere, but they have one thing in common: an understanding that it takes not just a robust web site, but a well-oiled manufacturing process to make customization work.

Production power is a foundation of the “mass customization” of apparel. Delivering the goods requires tight control of manufacturing. Those operating in this space already either manufacture their ready-made products themselves or contract with manufacturers to produce apparel to their specifications under their brand, rather than sourcing from available goods. Staying close to the manufacturing process has helped position them to make the jump to customization.

It’s a trend that’s just getting off the ground. Lands’ End Inc. is five months into Lands’ End Custom, an online shopping tool that lets customers order up chino pants cut and sewn to their own measurements. Jos. A. Bank Clothiers Inc. has had a Separates offering in its stores for 10 years that lets shoppers assemble off-the-rack suits as elements rather than in the standard sizes to get a better fit; last summer, it brought the Business Express Suit separates feature to the web.

Both efforts have received a fair amount of press. But what’s probably the next most visible attempt at the mass customization of apparel, online or off, was a resounding flop. Levi-Strauss’ well-publicized effort to sell custom jeans a few years ago required buyers to be fitted for the jeans in a store, and it fizzled before it ever really got off the ground. Given the short track record of mass customization online, and the failure of Levi`s offline attempt, it’s no wonder online retailers are waiting to see results from those already in the game before getting in themselves.

A tougher customer

“Mass customization is a challenge,” says George Whalin of San Marcos, Calif.-based Retail Management Consultants. “It doesn’t mean that somebody isn’t going to solve it, but it isn’t going to be easy. A half-dozen shoe companies alone, for example, have tried customization and none was able to make it work.”

In addition to the issue of how to cost-effectively produce and distribute one-offs as required by customer dictates, the shopper who orders custom is perhaps harder to please to start out with. “The customer who wants a custom fit in apparel is more discerning one than the customer who goes in and buys a jacket or a pair of shoes off the rack,” says Whalin. “There is no easy way to satisfy that customer.”

Indeed, says Geri Spieler, research director with Gartner Inc.’s GartnerG2 retail services group, custom merchandise has a higher rate of return because the shopper’s expectations are higher. “Anecdotally, I’ve heard it’s at least a 20% higher rate of return for customized products,” she says.

If fit is both the opportunity and the challenge of customization on the web, some players are cashing in on customization by avoiding those issues altogether. San Francisco-based bag manufacturer Timbuk2 Designs has been selling messenger bags in stores since 1989 and on its own web site since October 2000. An accessory rather than a garment, the messenger bag isn’t about fit but it is about style, so since the mid-1990s Timbuk2 has offered custom bags as a way to differentiate itself.

The custom bags have been available through dealer locations since 1994. That gave Timbuk2 plenty of time to refine its custom manufacturing processes before it ever reached out for the wider audience of the web. For example, its messenger bags come in four sizes, and the sides of each bag consist of three fabric panels for which the shopper can choose either matching or mixed colors. At its San Francisco plant, Timbuk2 maintains a supply of pre-cut panels in every color of the largest-sized bag. As part of the bag assembly process, the selected panel is cut to the ordered size as it’s sewn into the bag.

“Few in the sewn goods industry have been pursuing this type of mass customization, but we’ve spent years perfecting the manufacturing and making this build-to-order, quick-turnaround system work right,” says Jordan Reiss, vice president. “It’s a complicated system that takes a while to develop and build systems around. But now, the ability to turn around a single bag in 20 minutes is what enables us to sell on the web effectively.”

Timbuk2 had the manufacturing power and the design-your-own software, but eBags has the marketing muscle and mass-market presence online to make it take off. Tumbuk2 recently redeveloped its house-written software as a plug-in for web retailers to incorporate into their own systems. That let eBags launch the feature; it now offers the build-a-bag feature for Timbuk2’s messenger bags on its own site without having to link the customer back to Timbuk2’s site. EBags did the systems integration in-house at a cost of “tens of thousands” over two months, Cobb says.

Less than two weeks after launch in late February, Timbuk2 was receiving several orders a day on the custom messenger bags from eBags, according to Reiss. A link from MSN.com drove big traffic to eBags to check out the bags; 13,500 visitors clicked through to eBags on the first day the link was up, says Cobb. EBags is already looking at other initiatives in the area of customization.

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