Toys ‘R’ You:

Ever fancied yourself as an action figure? Think your life would make a good board game? If you feel so inclined, these days you can create both by clicking over to, a site that enables consumers to develop a variety...
April 1, 2001

Ever fancied yourself as an action figure? Think your life would make a good board game? If you feel so inclined, these days you can create both by clicking over to, a site that enables consumers to develop a variety of toys-including ones resembling themselves-from dolls to vehicles.

Consumers e-mail/mail their designs to the company, where a digital image of the toy is rendered using special software, a version of which it then sends back to the consumer for review. Once the person has OK’d the plans, Toybuilders constructs the toy, a process that usually takes four to six weeks. Prices range from US$80 to US$300 and up, depending on the intricacy of the design.

Though Toybuilders doesn’t produce product that is copyrighted, CEO and founder of the Michigan-based company Karl Denton says he has created everything from plastic heads of people that will fit on Pez dispensers and Star Wars action figures, to original spaceship models.

‘Just about anything consumers can think up, we can build,’ says Denton. Giving consumers the power to create their own toys seems to be working. In February, Denton says the company was processing 400 orders a month, up from 10 in September.

Toybuilders is just one of several companies currently waving the mass customization flag. Whether it’s General Mills allowing people to choose the ingredients for their own cereal, or Nike permitting customers to design their own running shoes, companies of all shapes and sizes are experimenting with giving consumers greater input into how the products they buy look, function, feel and taste.

And while there are drawbacks to customization-production costs are generally higher-the upside can be beneficial. In all instances, the key to making it work lies in finding the level of customization that makes financial sense.

For companies at the forefront of this trend, like Toybuilders (which launched in July), using a business model that provides consumers with control over every last detail of their toys is already paying dividends. This year, sales are expected to climb to US$700,000, a number that’s projected to double each year over the next five. Recently, Discover Magazine nominated the company for its 2001 Technological Innovation Awards, and will include a story on Toybuilders in its July issue. Denton says he half dreads the strain media exposure will place on his company’s resources since, in late February, the team was still struggling to fulfill Christmas orders.

‘Right now, we’re grabbing the interest of the hard-core Trekkies and sci-fi geeks, but eventually the general public is going to catch on to the idea of `wow, now I can have anything I want,” says Denton.

Dutch toyco Lego is another company that is betting consumers will increasingly demand a greater degree of customization from manufacturers and is gradually preparing to meet the anticipated need. Last November, it took its first dip into customization waters, offering Mosaic, a service that allows consumers to create a picture of themselves or a friend using Lego pieces. The process lets customers load a digital picture onto the Mosaic section of, which the company ‘Legoizes,’ turning the picture into pixels that are eventually converted into black, white and gray one-stud Lego plates. Consumers can then use these plates to reconstruct the picture. The entire process takes about two to three days to complete, costing US$29.99.

‘The Lego brand has always been about allowing consumers to use their imaginations to create something that is unique, and Mosaic is an extension of that,’ says Brad Justis, senior VP of Lego Direct, which oversees the company’s catalog and Internet sales. This month, will launch its second initiative, which will allow consumers to create their own trains, tracks and cars. The service will be available to consumers in North America and Europe only.

Though Justis wouldn’t discuss gross profits for customized product versus those of Lego’s mass-produced items, he says he’s confident the former will become an important part of the company’s overall business. ‘Lego wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t think it could be profitable,’ says Justis. At the same time, he is quick to point out the brand-building attributes that customization affords.

‘It’s also about bringing consumers closer to the Lego brand. We know, for instance, that people who are more involved with our brand-like those who belong to our Lego Club-buy more product,’ says Justis.

While not entirely irrelevant for Build-A-Bear Workshop, the product that customization yields isn’t nearly as important as the process itself. The chain of mall-based stores allows consumers to, for a fee, create personalized teddy bears and other stuffed animals.

‘We’re selling the experience. Obviously, you can buy bears anywhere, but people are willing to pay for the experience of creating their own, because it’s so much fun,’ says Maxine Clark, CEO and founder of the St. Louis-based company. Build-A-Bear’s stores are divided into a series of work stations, where consumers can select the type of stuffed animal they want to create, stuff it, dress it, name it, add a variety of accessories, and at the end, produce a birth certificate and storybook based on their new friend. The cost ranges from US$10 to US$25, which also allows consumers to add sound chips with their own prerecorded phrases if they want.

Clark admits the process isn’t totally customized (stuffed animal shells come premade, for instance), but it’s a degree of customization, she says, that makes it very affordable for the company, and one that has struck a chord with consumers. Sales for the chain were US$50 million in 2000, up from US$19 million the year before. Clark partially credits the sales incease to rapid expansion, which has seen BABW locations increase from 19 in ’99 to 40 last year, slated to balloon to 70 stores in 2001.

‘I think there may be more ideas out there where customization can work, but it has to be a product or service that has mass appeal,’ says Clark. For now, she is using the rising stock of her company, which won the National Retail Federation’s Retail Innovator of the Year Award for 2001, to assemble a BABW licensing and merchandising program and catalog, all of which it will launch later this year.

For other companies that have dabbled in customization, however, the results are murkier. Last summer, Mattel scaled back My Design, a web-only service launched on in ’98 that allowed girls to design their own Barbie and then have Mattel produce it. While Mattel found that the section was popular, most girls who visited used it primarily to print off their creations, while few actually opted for production, says Mattel spokesperson Julia Jensen. Consequently, the company nixed the fulfillment feature for lack of interest, but kept the design function.

Mattel’s change of heart does not surprise Jack Staff, chief Internet economist at Net consulting firm Zona Research.

‘The success of customization will be driven by the ability of companies to customize products in an information-intensive way-like Amazon beaming the name of a customer onto the jewel case of a CD, for example-as opposed to a product-intensive way,’ says Staff.

In the long run, he says, customizing product on a mass level is just not cost-effective for large companies. In limited doses, though, he notes, it can deliver some useful info about a company’s consumer base. ‘If, for instance, you find that you’re offering tennis shoes and nine out of 10 custom orders are in the color red, you have some very robust marketing research that suggests that your next shoe line should be in red. That’s a good thing.’

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