Custom apparel, though risky, can bring great success, brand recognition

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Balancing customers' options with production costs is key to implementing a successful custom program, based on interviews with several brands that have dabbled in the field.

Eddie Bauer’s custom MicroTherm StormDown jacket starts at $249 and offers more than a million possible color combinations. Photo courtesy of Eddie Bauer.

Eddie Bauer’s custom MicroTherm StormDown jacket starts at $249 and offers more than a million possible color combinations. Photo courtesy of Eddie Bauer.

It sounds risky to give customers a designer's paintbrush for the day to choose their own colors for a brand's signature piece of apparel. There’s a reason more of us aren’t making our own clothes. But providing some freedom for customers to choose their own colors, allowing for eclectic palettes that likely couldn’t sell in bulk, is proving to be a promising business model for many in the outdoor industry.

Brands that have implemented custom apparel programs say growth and customer support have shattered expectations, and one company that discontinued its successful program believes personalization is essentially on the brink of exploding.

"I absolutely believe this is the future," said Ed Schmults, CEO of Wild Things, a small Rhode Island company. Wild Things' custom jacket program started in 2012 and was hugely popular with customers, but it was it discontinued earlier this year so the company could focus more intently on its military contracts. "It makes too much sense not to do it this way, because you give the customer exactly what you want and you don’t have the inventory risk."

It doesn’t always work to give customers too much freedom, as Seattle-based Beyond Clothing learned in 2012 when it put its custom size program to rest. But give customers the ability to make a wild, neon-colored Eddie Bauer jacket, and they just love it.

After a year of planning, Eddie Bauer launched its custom MicroTherm Stormdown Jacket system in late October. Nearly every aspect of the jacket can be a different color, right down to different-colored zippers and zipper pulls and the metallic sheen of logos on the chest and sleeve. More than a million combinations are possible, and Eddie Bauer plans to expand the possibilities by adding more apparel items for customization.

“We think we are a brand that is about customers living their own adventure,” said Damien Huang, the company’s senior vice president of product and design. Now that the company has the web platform, which allows customers to see the color changes as they waffle over what color the inside of the jacket should be, personalized products will become intrinsic to the company, Huang said.

The standard MicroTherm starts at $199, while the custom version starts at $249.

 Wild Things Custom Pro Wind Hoody. Photo Courtesy of Wild Things

Wild Things Custom Pro Wind Hoody. Photo Courtesy of Wild Things

That's roughly the price difference most customers are willing to pay to get exactly what they want, Schmults said. When Wild Things offered custom jackets, the profit margin was fairly small on the most basic version, but money was made in the additions or extra customizations people could make, like adding a hood or embroidery. On average, consumers' creations cost 25 percent more than buying a jacket off the shelf.

"That was telling," Schmults said. "If it was 5 or 10 percent, I'd think it's just a fad. But 25 percent says the customer isn't always getting what they want. The customer is always compromising. The fact that they're willing to pay 25 percent more - and that's hard data - versus something they're able to get right off the shelf, that's pretty compelling information that they're willing to pay that much more to get what they want."

Unlike Eddie Bauer, which will take returns if there's a flaw with the product but not if customers are unhappy with the design, Wild Things accepted returns on customers' personalized items unless they had been embroidered. The return rate was less than 7 percent, which Schmults said is "pretty darn low for apparel."

The MyChacos custom sandal program has been a huge success for the brand. Photo courtesy of Chaco.

The MyChacos custom sandal program has been a huge success for the brand. Photo courtesy of Chaco.

Chaco allows people to customize their sandals and makes custom products here in the United States, unlike the inline version made overseas. A custom pair costs $130, $25 more than an inline model.

“It’s more attainable for more people now than ever before,” said Colin Butts, Chaco's marketing director. “What they (customers) talk to us about when they make their own sandals is that they know there’s nothing else like it. It’s a one-of-a-kind, unique to me experience.”

While offering color and pattern personalization has proved promising for many companies, it becomes trickier when too much responsibility is left to the customer. Beyond, a Seattle-based company that makes clothing survival systems for consumers and special operations forces in the U.S. military, stopped making custom-fit clothing in 2012, after more than 15 years of doing so.

“The biggest challenge with custom is getting people to measure themselves correctly,” said Jay Neely, Beyond’s marketing director. “What I think is going to fit me correctly is different from what someone who’s my exact same size might think.���

On top of that, it’s difficult to take your own measurements without help from someone else, Neely said. If a waist size is off by an inch, that’s significant, and it often meant starting all over if the customer returned the product because it wasn’t a perfect fit. If it was too big, that was one thing, but it’s much easier to take something in than it is to make it bigger.

“Online, it’s not practical,” Neely said.

Custom fit was always a small part of what Beyond did, but now the company focuses even more intently on its survival layering systems, which do have an element of personalization in them. The seven-layer system can keep people alive down to 45 below zero. People choose which parts of the system they need for the climate they’re in and whether they’ll be active or static.

Chaco's custom sandals are manufactured in Michigan. The brand offers dozens of colors and patterns for customers to choose from to make their creations. Photo courtesy of Chaco.

Chaco's custom sandals are manufactured in Michigan. The brand offers dozens of colors and patterns for customers to choose from to make their creations. Photo courtesy of Chaco.

“The idea of personalization has really taken root,” Butts said.

Chaco has created tens of thousands of pairs of custom sandals since it started its program, which “shattered” expectations. The company had expected it would take a couple of years for it to turn a profit, but it took less than a year. Plans for expansion are in the works.

“It’s been a real big boon for the brand,” Butts said. “It’s brought a lot of attention to our product line.”

Eddie Bauer, too, has seen quite a bit of attention in the wake of its custom jacket reveal. It chose what it deems to be one of its most iconic and versatile pieces, and the company has heard nothing but positivity.

Nearly every aspect of the jacket can be customized, which can lead to a truly unique piece of outerwear - as well as serious deliberation on the customer’s part. The average time spent playing with the feature is 15-20 minutes, based on data collected shortly after the product launched, Huang said. The SNEWS team spent several hours designing a jacket before finally making a decision. Huang said he spent quite a bit of time on it, too, designing several before choosing his final version. The colors are true to the preview online, based on the jacket the SNEWS team created - if it looks good online, it will look good in real life, too.

That 15-20 minute average visit time is remarkably high, Huang said.

“It’s something that we see a lot of engagement with,” Huang said. “With those metrics, we’re pretty happy with where things are.”

The custom market is growing, and Schmults expects it to expand beyond just picking colors on a piece of clothing. Some day, a company should offer different fabric choices, he said, so perhaps an ice climber can choose to insert super-breathable side panels in a jacket that otherwise might not have them.

The barrier to making the customization leap is internal for companies, Schmults said; public support is already there. But often, designers don't want to relinquish control. What if a consumer makes something ugly and their logo is on it?

"Who are you to say what's 'ugly?'" Schmults said. "I submit to them that it's not surrendering control, but it's bringing the customer in under the tent."

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