To Each His Own

Behind the customization revolution that's changing the way we buy everything from candy bars to sea kayaks

mission bicycle company custom gear customization choose your own

A custom bike from the Mission Bicycle Company in California.     Photo: Inga Hendrickson

These days exacting adventurers can specify the camber on a pair of Wagner wood skis, select hull materials on a P&H sea kayak, or put pumpkin seeds and cranberries in a Chocomize candy bar for about the same price as the premium off-the-rack version of each of those items.

Made-to-order gear is nothing new, of course. Vans and Adidas have offered pick-your-color-scheme kicks for years, and boutique outfits like Feathered Friends and the Limmer custom-boot company have been crafting bespoke outerwear for even longer. What’s starting to change is everything in between. Due to a shifting global economy and technological advances, small-to-midsize companies are beginning to realize that letting customers put their stamp on the gear they buy is smart business.

For starters, the availability of interactive Web tools has made the customization process quick and intuitive. In five minutes, you can design your own Princeton Tec headlamp or Mission Bicycle Company commuter bike (see how we put together our custom ride here). But putting customers in the design seat is also about saving money. With labor costs rising overseas, many companies have brought manufacturing back stateside or ramped up the efficiency of their factories. (San Francisco messenger-bag producer Timbuk2 put its sewing machines on wheels so seamstresses can roll between bins of precut fabric.) Fashioning products closer to home also allows for smaller batches, which makes it easier to manage inventory and quickly adapt to changing customer tastes.

“It minimizes our risk,” says Ed Schmults, CEO of Wild Things, an outerwear company in New Hampshire. In just five months, Wild Things’ made-to-order line grew to a third of its online business and is rapidly expanding. “In the next decade, every technical-apparel brand will be making gear this way,” Schmults says. “It’s cheaper for the company and better for the customer.” Now that’s what we like to hear.

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