Cover Story: Getting personal

This article first appeared in Enterprise, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on August 10, 2020 - August 16, 2020.
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In the past, the customising or personalising of products was reserved for high-end luxury brands. Having your name engraved on a journal or lipstick, along with a handmade label, represented prestige and class.

However, general manufacturing costs have gone down due to economies of scale, as have customisation costs. This has led to a rapid growth of the personalised goods industry, with many companies adopting product customisation as an added service or even a core offering.

Photobook Malaysia has embraced and adopted mass product customisation as part of its DNA. According to CEO Leow Wee Jonn, product customisation will no longer be a niche service or industry, but the norm in the future.

“Everyone is using customisation or personalisation as a buzzword right now. As the world gets more competitive, there is no doubt that brands and companies will have to step up their game. And the only way to do that is to give customers what they really want,” he says.

“It was the luxury brands that really started this trend. A lot of it was due to the high costs associated with it and the manual or hands-on customisation process. That is why it was not accessible to the mass market.”

Leow points out that personalisation and custom­isation are not limited to physical products but includes services as well. He cites the examples of nutritionists crafting custom recipes for a balanced diet and travel agencies coming up with personalised travel plans and having their customers’ names printed on products as well as packaging or marketing materials.

“Now, you can even customise the car you want to buy. You can select the colour of the car and seat belt, which in itself is a form of personalisation. Fifty years ago, a car was seen as a mass-market product and every single car looked exactly the same. But today, the cars that are being churned out do not look the same, inside and out,” says Leow.

The online printing industry has seen much growth in supply and demand since Photobook was founded in 2005, he says. What used to be a niche sector with only a few players is now a multibillion-dollar industry.

“If you look back to 2005, there were no real major players globally and everyone was just starting out. Many of the players were limited to 4R printing. But around 2005, several companies started taking the business model more seriously,” says Leow.

“If we look at the industry today, there are billion-dollar companies operating in this space, some in Europe and the others in the US. Their combined revenue for personalised products and online photo books has already surpassed US$10 billion (RM42.7 billion).”

Running a company that ships products interna­tionally, Leow has observed that customised products are more popular in Western countries. He believes that the maturity of their e-commerce markets has played a huge role in creating the demand.

“Ultimately, personalised products are more easily sold online. Most of the major players conduct their business online as well. The US currently has the most mature e-commerce market in the world,” says Leow.

As e-commerce grew in the US, the personalised product industry expanded as well. Hence, the maturity of this industry is a reflection of the growth of its e-commerce market.

“China is arguably one of the more mature e-com­merce markets right now and we have definitely seen a huge uptick there. Many players are looking at Asia as a new area of growth, simply because we have a young middle-income population who loves these unique, personalised products,” says Leow.

 

Balancing physical and digital

Jon Lee — business development director of ana tomy, a personalised stationery and gift brand under The Alphabet Press — agrees. He points out that ana tomy is shifting its focus to online because of the many challenges of growing a physical presence.

ana tomy is famous for its customisable journals, which can be fitted as planners, notebooks or sketchbooks. Part of their appeal stems from showcasing the process of assembling a custom-made journal in front of customers at its physical store in Kuala Lumpur, which usually takes about 15 to 30 minutes.

“I come from a retail background, so one of the biggest challenges for ana tomy is how we can grow our presence physically,” says Lee. “Because we are giving our customers an intimate customer experience, not to mention the artisanal skills needed to assemble the product, it is not easy to expand the business physically.

“That is why you do not see us opening more physical stores. That is also why we want to grow online.”

In addition to expanding its business online, ana tomy is looking to grow its product line to include more gift items such as wallets and apparel. Cliff Leong, operation director of ana tomy, says the company has observed its customers buying products in batches, likely for family, friends, employees or brand partners.

“If you look at a standard custom-made product such as tailoring, it can take days, weeks or even months to create just one product. For the customer, that is too long. What ana tomy is trying to do is to have the productions made more quickly, maybe in 15 minutes.

“If you want to be thoughtful and put some effort into picking out gifts, we offer that kind of experience because customers can contribute part of the design. So, it becomes more than just a standard gift you can buy off the shelf.”

Lee points out that there are many benefits to having customisable products as the core part of its business model, especially in terms of customer engagement and product sustainability. “Adopting this model gives us a lot of flexibility. We sometimes collaborate and engage with our audience or followers and let them pick five or six designs to put into production. We can then make these into an exclusive or limited edition line. Our audience loves our products for their exclusivity.

“Speaking of off-the-shelf brands and products, one of the things to consider is that there is always a chance that a particular design does not sell well. These items will most likely end up with large discounts during seasonal stock clearances, or end up in landfills.”

Leong says allowing customers to choose the design helps to reduce material wastage in general. As a product designer himself, he stresses that whenever ana tomy releases a new design, its main intention is to reduce the impact it has on the environment.

Leong points out that many customers do not realise that ana tomy journals are made of paper that has been Forest Stewardship Council-certified, meaning the wood pulp harvested to manufacture the paper has been done in a socially and environmentally sustainable manner. “You have to consider not only the aesthetics or the functionality of the product but also the materials that go into the product, how it goes to market as well as how it is disposed of.”

 

Speed and profitability

Brands such as ana tomy are not the only players that place a heavy emphasis on manufacturing speed. Christy Ng, founder of shoe retailer and manufacturer Christy Ng Sdn Bhd, attributes much of her company’s success to automation and the fact that it controls the entire manufacturing process, which translates into cost savings and faster turnaround times for customers.

Christy Ng is a local shoe brand that specialises in women’s fashion footwear and is known for its custom-made shoes. It ships its products internationally and customers are able to customise their shoes from scratch, from the colour and shape of the shoe to the height of the heel.

“It used to take four weeks to make a pair of shoes in 2013, when we first started. Now, we can finish it in four hours. Because of the increased sales volume, we have managed to upscale our operations, upgrade our machinery and automate many of our processes,” says Christy.

“With all of these upgrades, the cost to manufacture a pair of custom-made shoes has dropped significantly since 2013. If you buy our shoes now compared with 10 years ago, the quality is way better than before because automation does a better job.”

She points out that although her customisable shoe business has boomed since it was established, the process has been riddled with unique challenges, which are still present to this day. “We were the only player offering this sort of service in Malaysia and Southeast Asia at the time. There was a brand selling customisable shoes out of Australia and another based in the US, but both have closed.

“Running a customisable shoe business is still hard and most brands do not offer such services because it is very challenging operationally as every pair of shoes you make is unique. The human resources, cost and time needed to create a unique pair of shoes are much higher than off-the-shelf ones and there are a lot of intricacies involved when it comes to meeting customers’ requests.”

Christy recalls that in the early days, many shoe parts and material suppliers were not interested in working with her company when it requested a specific shape or colour because the store was unable to commit to manufacturing in high volume. “To just have the injection mould to create the heel shape that we needed, we would need to order at least 10,000 to 20,000 pieces. So, in terms of creativity, our designs were limited due to a lack of economies of scale.

“It is not like a dress, where you cut a piece of fabric in a different way and it becomes a different garment. Shoemaking relies a lot on injection-moulding to make the silhouette.

“The challenge for boutique shoe brands out there is that they will only have access to the parts that are readily available on the shelves and they can only buy the readily available heels on the market. For these reasons, we knew that we needed to scale.”

With these factors in mind, Christy is considering limiting the shoe customisation options available to customers, despite the overall increase in demand for highly customisable shoes. “We want to streamline the customisation process because there are certain sections of the shoe which we do not want customers to customise for practical reasons. We will still allow major components to be customised, such as the height of the heel, colour or maybe fabric material, but we will not let them customise every single part of the shoe,” she says.

“If you give customers too many options, they may be overwhelmed and have decision paralysis. Having too many options also slows down the sales cycle. There is no set formula to determine how much customers should be able to customise the product. So, this needs to be done through trial and error.”

Christy highlights that ready-made shoes are a central part of its business as well. Although customers are unable to configure the shoes to their liking from scratch, they are still able to choose their favourite accessories to attach to the shoes.

“This is a cheaper alternative and actually more scalable. The customers are also able to get their products much faster than a customisable shoe made from scratch,” she says.

“This is because there are a lot of brides who are about to get married and are unable to wait four weeks to receive their shoes. Many customers need the shoes at the very last minute. That is why we came up with this business model — so we can meet their demands within a week or, sometimes, provide the shoes on the spot.”

 

Attention to detail

However, even with the move towards mass persona­lisation, there is still a niche market for old-fashioned, high-end customisation and personalisation. Take custom-made fine jewellery brand Frou Frou.

Its founder Dorothy Ng Jen Chunn, who comes from a family of jewellery craftsmen, is of the third generation running this business. The George Town, Penang-based enterprise is known for crafting fine custom-made jewellery fitted with rare gemstones such as rubies, sapphires and topazes.

“My late grandfather migrated here from China. He settled down in the northern part of Peninsular Malaysia. That was when he started crafting jewellery for jewellery dealers,” says Dorothy.

“This is a family legacy. It would be a waste if nobody [in my generation] picks up the business, which has been going on for 70 years.”

Dorothy fell in love with jewellery because she grew up watching her father collecting and crafting gemstones. She spent most of her childhood fascinated with these stones, which propelled her to study gemology and become a graduate gemologist.

Dorothy acknowledges that there is an appeal to running a traditional jewellery store, but the core customer segment has grown old and some have even passed away. Hence, she named her store Frou Frou, which means showy ornaments in French, to appeal to the younger generation.

Dorothy points out that traditional fine jewellery is not meant only for the older population but for the younger generation as well because fine jewellery is built to last and many classic designs are timeless. “European designs are something my parents and grandfather have been doing since the 1950s. We have been crafting jewellery that leaned towards European or British designs, with our signature design being the crown solitaire.

“The crown designs are based on the crowns that the British monarch would wear. Even now, we still have young customers telling us that they love the crown design and how pretty it looks, despite our use of the same design concepts for 70 years.”

Dorothy observes that Malaysian customers are well educated when it comes to diamonds because information and guides are widely available on the internet. However, gemstones such as alexandrite are less popular due to an overall lack of awareness.

“First of all, the customer had not heard of the parti­cular gemstone before. Customers need to know the name of a gemstone to search for more details online. So, it is quite hard for them to discover new gemstones that they would probably love,” she says.

Dorothy wishes to dispel the misconception that customised fine jewellery is extremely costly and reserved only for the wealthy. She points out that custom-made jewellery can be affordable and she has many middle-class customers.

“We do not charge exorbitant prices because we have been doing this for the past 70 years. We understand how to run the business from A to Z, from meeting the customers all the way to the design, crafting and delivery of the jewellery, as well as maintenance, repair and washing,” says Dorothy.

“Everything is communicated efficiently within the household. When a customer delivers a message, I will pass it on to my father, who is the craftsman. He will then pass it to my sister, who is the designer. We will then discuss how to tackle the project as a family, which cuts down the cost.”

Dorothy explains that many customised jewellery brands in European countries charge exorbitant prices because they outsource many of their business processes overseas. She says it can be difficult to be on the same page in terms of product design and materials with so many international stakeholders. If the customer requests any changes, the back-and-forth process will incur additional time and cost, which will reflect in the higher price tag.

Due to a lack of awareness among consumers, Dorothy has noticed that there has been a decline in consumer demand for fine custom-made jewellery despite a growing luxury goods market here in Malaysia. “Customers now prefer to buy experiences such as travelling, or electronic gadgets. If you notice, not many people in Malaysia wear jewellery apart from their wedding rings,” she says.

“It is also because people are afraid of robberies and they do not feel safe leaving the house with too much jewellery. I have had customers who told me they had been attacked and robbed in a car park before and are now afraid to wear jewellery outdoors.

“However, there is still a market for customers who want custom-made jewellery for special events because they are looking for a sense of individuality. They want to make a personal statement and express their fashion sense. So, they would definitely go for customised jewellery rather than off-the-shelf ones.”

Frou Frou places a heavy emphasis on personalised service. Dorothy provides private consultation for both local and international customers, regardless of their budget. She then recommends the materials and design based on the wearer’s personality, lifestyle, daily habits and fashion sense.

“We treat every single client’s concerns as if they were our own. It is important to stand in their shoes and understand what they are like, and create something that is unique to them. That is because unlike off-the-shelf brands, customising a piece of jewellery is an experience, not just a simple purchase,” says Dorothy.

“The customer is partaking in the creation process and that kind of satisfaction is priceless. I also personally hand deliver the product directly to the customer and tell them how to care for the piece, as well as how to and how not to wear it.”

Dorothy says the enjoyment of making customised jewellery goes both ways and she has had many interesting moments working with customers. She recalls managing her father’s store, when an elderly couple brought their old jewellery to be polished. She was told that the pieces were actually bought from her father four decades ago.

“I was amazed to learn that this piece of jewellery was actually older than me. Forty years later, I was tasked with polishing the jewellery my father had made and returning it to its original showroom finish,” says Dorothy.

She hopes to see the same with the pieces she has made. “I hope my customers will return after 20 years so I can polish it for them to bring back its original shine. That is something that I really look forward to and it is only possible with fine jewellery because it is built to last. Its timeless design is something I would encourage people to go for.”

Despite the lukewarm demand for customisable jewellery, Dorothy is still optimistic about the outlook for the industry, pointing out that gemstones are now trending in Singapore. “The city state is many years ahead of us and the trends that happen there will usually occur in Malaysia a few years later. As long as jewellers are able to come up with modern and beautiful designs, I do not see any reason why people would stop buying fine custom-made jewellery.”