March 20, 1996

Custom Footwear by Computer at Off-The-Rack Prices


When the Custom Foot shoe store opens its doors in Westport, Conn., for the first time Thursday, it may be hard to judge how business is going: even shoppers making a purchase will be leaving empty-handed.

That's because this is a shoe store without shoes. Well, not exactly -- the store can draw on a potential inventory of more than 10 million pairs, with every style in every possible size. It's just that none of them have been made yet.

Instead of trying on shoes until they find some that fit reasonably well, shoppers at Custom Foot will have their feet scanned electronically, with the scanner capturing even the slight differences in size and width that typically distinguish the right foot from the left. The data will be transmitted to factories in Italy, where the shoes will be made to order and delivered in about two weeks. The price? An average of about $140, comparable to high-quality mass-produced shoes but well below the $500 or more that a handmade pair usually commands.

The store on Main Street in the affluent commuter suburb is the latest -- and in some ways most ambitious -- experiment in what marketing experts call "mass customization." This seemingly contradictory term describes the process of using computers, flexible manufacturing techniques and sophisticated marketing approaches to narrowly target products and services to the needs of the individual buyer.

Mass customization gives individual customers "exactly what they want, without creating overwhelming choice complexity or pushing costs up to the point that a company prices itself out of the market," Christopher W. Hart, a consultant who is president of the Spire Group in Brookline, Mass., said.

Some electronics products, such as computers made by Dell and Gateway 2000 and pagers made by Motorola, have been mass customized for several years, with customers specifying the types of components to be used or the features desired. Large trucks are mostly custom built as well, with buyers detailing the type of engine, transmission and other major components to be included.

Mass customization is also catching on in the service sector. By studying demographics and individual credit histories, some financial services companies now offer customized deals for credit cards, for instance, varying the interest rates, credit limits and other terms, customer by customer. And certain luxury hotel chains, like Ritz-Carlton, compile detailed lists of each client's likes and dislikes. A traveler who registers at any Ritz-Carlton anywhere in the world does not have to ask for a nonsmoking room, a nonallergenic pillow or her favorite newspaper; her desires are already known.

But it is one thing to keep track of individual tastes or make a product from standard parts taken off the shelf. It is quite another to make something fit as snug as, well, a shoe.

"Clothing is a sterner test because everybody is unique," B. Joseph Pine 2d, the president of Strategic Horizons Inc., a consulting company in Ridgefield, Conn., said.

Levi Strauss & Co. has been selling custom-fit jeans at its Original Levis stories, including those in New York, for more than a year, but the measurements are done by hand. By relying on an electronic scanner, the Custom Foot takes fashion customization to the next level in holding out the prospect of a more perfect fit.

"Mass customization is the wave of the future," said an enthusiastic Jeffrey Silverman, president of the store's parent company, the Measurably Better Corp., and a longtime veteran of the shoe business. The company, also of Westport, plans to open other Custom Foot stores in the next few months at the Short Hills Mall in Millburn, N.J., the Roosevelt Field Mall in Garden City, N.Y., and the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn.

Whether shoppers will be similarly enthusiastic is not yet known, of course. For one thing, how exact the fit will be is not clear, since the shoes will not be made, as true custom-made products are, by craftsmen who work on them from start to finish. Instead, these shoes will be made on an assembly line whose equipment is fine-tuned to the specifications captured by the scanners.

Some marketing specialists also caution that the two-week wait for delivery may slow sales, particularly to customers who like the instant satisfaction of walking out the door with their purchases.

"This may be an idea whose time is not here yet," John Deighton, an associate professor at the Harvard Business School said. "Delay is the No.1 enemy of impulse shopping."

But in the limited tests so far, customers, particularly women, have shown they are willing to pay a little more and wait awhile to get clothes that really fit. Levi Strauss drew widespread attention in 1994 when it introduced its Personal Pair jeans, even though they cost $15 more than regular jeans and involve a wait of two to three weeks.

"In the focus group studies we've done, we found that women were very eager to get made-to-measure clothing at ready-to-wear prices," said Peter N. Butenhoff, president of Textile/Clothing Technology Corp., an apparel research organization. "And they said they would be willing to wait up to two weeks to get the garments."

In fact, the textile research group is developing a system that uses a body scanner, computerized pattern modification and high-speed, single-ply fabric cutting to produce customized clothing in a factory, rather than at a tailor's store. The intention is to produce custom clothes at prices close to off-the-rack with an acceptable wait.

"It is our belief that it should be possible to do most apparel in a week and a man's suit in about two weeks, rather than the six or more weeks that it takes now," Butenhoff said.

Advocates of mass customized systems say the approach sharply cuts distribution and handling costs, because almost no inventory is needed. And because every product is sold before it is produced, there is no need for profit-squeezing markdowns to sell slow-moving goods.

Other industries are also bullish on customization.

For example, Pine reports that a Japanese company, Paris Miki, uses a digital scan of a customer's face to produce a customized eyeglass lens shape to enhance the wearer's appearance. The shape is then used to make a pair of frameless glasses, typically within three days. The glasses are now being test-marketed in Bellevue, Wash. Eventually, the company expects to provide glasses with frames as well.

On another front, the Lutron Electronics Co. of Coopersburg, Pa., has developed a family of lighting controls that are customized in a wide variety of shapes, colors and sizes in response to the needs of interior designers.

And auto makers, notably BMW, dream of taking sales prospects on virtual reality "test rides" while they custom order a vehicle.

Such an approach could free dealers from the hugely expensive need to stock hundreds of cars to meet the different needs and tastes of consumers. It might also eliminate the need for high-pressure sales tactics to "move the iron" that is already on the dealer's lot.

A virtual reality simulator could change the whole car-buying experience, Hart of the Spire Group said.

"Imagine 'feeling' the performance differential of different engine options," he wrote in a paper describing the approach. "How about 'seeing' the different color options on the model you are interested in. Want to take a drive down the California coast? Just a moment while I push a few buttons. Want a premium stereo built into the car, as opposed to spending $2,000 at an after-market stereo shop? No problem."

Nothing quite so dramatic will greet shoppers at the Custom Foot, a modest, 850 square foot store with shoe samples on the walls. Once the customizing concept has been explained by salespeople, interested customers will don white socks for the measurement process.

Two silhouette views are taken of each foot, from the bottom and from the side, generating 13 measurements for each foot.

Silverman describes the system as "about 10 percent technology" with the rest of the effort focused on marketing and customer handling. As the system was originally designed, for example, only the operator of the scanning device could see the computerized image of the customer's feet on a video screen. But an early test found that customers also wanted to watch. So now a separate monitor faces the seated customer.

After the scan, customers go to another terminal in the store to pick colors, styles, types of leather and other features and to check the price.

At the end of the day, the foot scan information and consumer choices for each order are to be sent to Measurably Better's nearby corporate office and then forwarded to its office in Florence. From there, the order data are distributed to the seven factories signed up to produce the shoes.

In addition to being able to produce custom shoes at close to off-the-shelf prices, the system allows the company to respond more quickly to changes in fashion, Silverman said. "Most Italian factories started working on shoes for the fall of 1996 a year ago, and American companies start 18 months in advance," he said. "I can go from a new style to shoes in the store in four weeks."

But what if the customer gets cold feet when the shoes arrive from Italy? After all, this will still be the first time the buyer tries on the shoes.

No problem, Silverman says, pointing to the store's guarantee to take back any pair, no questions asked.

But what happens then to an expensive product that has been made for one person, and one person only? Silverman says the rejected shoes will be donated to charity, where the intended recipients may be more willing to make a stretch.

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