Paths to Earning Business of Millenials

Like forest paths intersecting in a clearing, three seemingly disparate articles on our reading list today led to the same place.  

The subjects: 3D technology spurring mass customization, Patagonia’s new apparel line made from recycled garments and salvaged fabric swatches, and an expansive study of the age 25-to-34 crowd (aka millennials).

Far into the first article, posted on the blog of French software company Dassault Systèmes, noted mass customization expert B. Joseph Pine is quoted. He cites apparel as an example of an industry coming around to the benefits of mass customization, which enables consumers to personalize products before they’re made.

“Retailers discount, dump or recycle tons of unsold clothes. They produced what people didn’t want,” says Pine. “Mass customization allows you to produce on demand, so there’s less waste. It’s more environmentally sustainable. You eliminate shipping around the world stuff that you’re not selling.”

Then came the story about Patagonia’s Truth to Materials collection, the latest example of the company’s broad and longstanding commitment to sustainability. Many other retailers, brands, and manufacturers have embraced the goal, notably through the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, but none as pervasively--or culturally--as Patagonia. (See the list of members here.)

The third article reported the findings of a survey conducted in 19 countries of nearly 10,000 millennials, sometimes described as the first generation that expects to be able to customize everything they buy.

While the study didn’t address customization, it did examine millennials’ attitudes about brands. Many are skeptical of how brands market to them, 30% overall and 40% in the United States and United Kingdom.

However, their attitudes about corporate citizenship reveal how they might view apparel companies that offer customization and tout its sustainability benefits, and companies like Patagonia committed to help-the-environment initiatives:

  • 59% said brands should actively participate to improve causes.

  • 58% said brands have the potential to be a force for good.

  • 54% said they are more loyal to brands that help improve societal or ecological issues.

In the U.S., millennials have an estimated $170 billion in annual buying power. A formula for apparel brands and retailers and other industries to earn a larger chunk seems clear from today’s readings: empower millennials to customize what they want to buy and demonstrate a commitment to doing good in the world.

Mass Customization and the Model T Cliché

Overuse of a phrase or expression demotes it linguistically to cliché status. Sometimes the once descriptively powerful devolves into triteness. Familiarity breeds contempt, itself a cliché, captures the effect.

Such is the fate of a popular comparison: mass customization of personalized products vs mass production of the all-black Ford Model T. Search the terms together to see how often it’s been used. Even some Twitter users poked fun at the rampant use earlier this year.

It’s unfortunate that the comparison has sunk into cliché-dom. After all, it’s starkly vivid: the freedom of individuals designing products based on personal tastes before they’re made contrasted with Henry Ford’s famous dictate, “People can have the Model T in any color--so long as it’s black.”

Introduced in 1908, the Model T was available in red, blue, green or gray until Ford concluded in 1914 that eliminating color choice would speed production and lower costs. He couldn’t have envisioned the array of design choices shoppers can make online now, 100 years later, including for Ford vehicles. For example, the company’s online configurator lets buyers of the 2015 F150 pickup truck choose from among 13 colors, 14 wheel designs, and many other customization options.

Recent surveys show that consumers, especially millennials, increasingly expect individual customization choices. They want to participate in the design of products to ensure they meet their aesthetic tastes and express who they are or perceive themselves to be.

As more brands and retailers fulfill the customization expectation, manufacturers recognize they must respond. A new study, “Getting Closer to Customers,” found that as technology continues to drive a global shift to customization, manufacturers see a need to relocate and make their supply chains more flexible. Eighty-two percent “now consider proximity to the end-customer as vital to their business model” to service consumers better and faster.

In other words, mass customization has come of age. One could argue that definitional contrasts with mass production of Model Ts a century ago are irrelevant.

Continuing advances in technology, including our own 3D virtual product experiences supporting customization, appear certain to make not just personalization but hyper-personalization the norm. In the process, the Model T-mass production example will, to use a well-worn cliché, fade into the dustbin of history.

Perhaps 100 years hence or sooner, the era of empowering shoppers to customize products online will be viewed as quaintly archaic. And the era will be compared to the new era of people 3D-printing the clothes they want to wear on any given day, not to mention a tricked-out self-flying Ford of the future.

Damage by Design to Make It Mine

Among our favorite topics is mass customization, the growing trend of shoppers personalizing products online before purchase and before they’re manufactured. Admittedly we have a self-interest in the trend, evident in our gBuilder demo.

A distant cousin to mass customization recently caught our eye. It’s too amorphous to warrant trend status. We’ve named it post-purchase offline customization, or PPOC, a term absent from Google until we post this blog item.

The most intriguing PPOC examples require in the final stage of design not sophisticated technology but intentional infliction of damage. Sometimes the damage is strategic, sometimes random. Depending on results buyers are left with a product prized for its uniquely personal aesthetic appeal or, less likely, personalized buyer’s remorse.

Especially piquing our interest is a concrete-sheathed hanging lamp. The designer, Romanian architect Dragos Motica, empowers the buyer to create art. In the package is a rock for chipping holes in the concrete to make a one-of-a-kind look, not just of the lamp’s exterior but the pattern of emitted light.

Motica poses philosophical questions that hover far above the lamp:

“When is an object designed? When is an object precious, particular? What is broken and what is new? What means the result of a mechanical intervention (more or less violent) on an object? What is an vulgarized object?”

In apparel the best known and oldest example of PPOC are jeans known as “extreme destroy.” For the unfamiliar, pictures explain better than words. DIYers made the random look so popular that opportunistic companies stepped in and made faded, tattered jeans a hot, unabating fashion trend.

We’re not sure where to classify jeans made from denim that lions, tigers and bears at a Japanese zoo claw, chew, and otherwise distress. The animals “play” with denim-wrapped objects at the behest of Zoo Jeans, a brand started by volunteers seeking to finance the zoo’s revitalization.

And then there’s the Edward Scissorhands of apparel, Adam Saaks, who has achieved celebrity status for his live-performance prowess at rapidly cutting artistic slits and other designs in t-shirts, swimsuits, and other garments while the buyers wear them. Now Saaks is selling his slashed works online, and he's inspired some fans to create DIY videos.

Whether customized before or after purchase, online or offline, or with or without intentional damage, such products tap deeply into what people desire: owning things not as possessions but as reflections of themselves--or who they want to be.



Long Road to Make Virtual Apparel Look Real

The staggering but steady leaps in computing power make possible Embodee’s virtual product experiences, as they do countless other things. Without several decades of exponential advances, our servers would take intolerably long to dynamically render images of apparel. And your web-enabled devices would take even longer to display them.

For example, our recently patented virtual try-on technology produces in seconds a 360-degree view of how a pair of jeans fit you. In the past it would have taken minutes or even hours, an experience like trying on those jeans in a dressing room but endlessly waiting to see anything in the mirror.

While personal computers today process hundreds of billions of instructions a second, the number in 1987 was less than 20 million. That year two computer scientists in Palo Alto, California developed how to simulate shapes of flexible objects, including cloth.

They applied principles of physics to control how those objects moved virtually from effects of gravity, wind, contact with the body movements, and so forth.

But because even the legendary Cray computer, the most powerful available at the time, wasn’t powerful enough to process the required complex instructions, the simulations either didn’t work or were too short.

It would take 10 years for other scientists to improve the software and for computing power to catch up so that apparel would look and move realistically on animated characters. The public first saw the results in the 1997 Oscar-winning short Geri’s Game.

While working for French visual effects innovator BUF Compagnie, our R & D director, Isabelle Haulin, helped to create cloth simulation software used later in state-of-the-art feature films. The first was The Cell in 2000, which featured visual effects taken for granted today. But at the time the simulation of a giant purple cape was groundbreaking.

Haulin has applied her film work to Embodee’s technology that renders high-fidelity 3D images of apparel, realistically simulating drape, wrinkles, and weave.

Integrated with the technology is cloth simulator software from Syflex. The company was started after its founder developed visual effects for the film Final Fantasy. It now makes available a widely used cloth simulation plug-in.

“Besides film production, cloth simulation is increasingly used in the gaming and apparel design industries as some user-friendly applications have become available,” Haulin said. “It also can handle a higher concentration of particles--geometric shapes--and increased garment complexity (multiple layers) close to real time, improving rendering speed and realism.”

Virtual product experiences with apparel are sure to become even richer visually, not to mention faster, as computing power advances ever upward.

3 Ways Touchscreens Influence Online Shoppers

Welcome, retailers. Today’s lesson: the power of touch.

According to recent academic research, online shoppers more highly value a product if they touch an image of it using a touchscreen instead of pointing at it via a computer mouse or touchpad.

Yes, yes, the margin-squeezed skeptics among you are silently scoffing: What difference does it make how they click to our wares?

Quite a lot, it turns out.

Boston College professors, S. Adam Brasel and James Gips, whose research was published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, found that touchscreen shopping influences shoppers in three ways:

  1. They feel a stronger sense of psychological ownership.
  2. That sense of ownership triggers what’s known as the endowment effect: the perception that the product is worth more money than the selling price.
  3. If the product is one shoppers typically touch and hold at a brick-and-mortar store, such as apparel, the intensity of attachment and perceived value increase yet again.
Professors Gips, Brasel  (Boston College photo/Lee Pellegrini)

Professors Gips, Brasel  (Boston College photo/Lee Pellegrini)

The product choices in two study groups were college sweatshirts and city walking-tours, and the sweatshirts and tents. Participants who used tablets and selected sweatshirts were willing to sell them but for an average of 50% more than the asking price.

“Essentially, directly touching pictures of products generates feelings of ownership, causing you to act in many ways as if you already own the products,” Brasel and Gips wrote. “This can increase your perceived value of the product, make you more attached to the product, and more reluctant to give it up.”

Those responses can be the same type generated when touching the product in a physical store. After all, “we’ll hold the product in one hand and touch the product with the other hand,” Brasel told The Boston College Chronicle. “So the act of doing that on a tablet mimics our real-world experience much better.”

Brasel also said the findings could be helpful for retailers as online shopping increases, as does web access via tablets and smart-phones.

"It suggests they should be putting a lot of effort into optimizing their touchscreen versions of their websites, the ones designed for phones and tablets. And that you want as much direct touch as possible, and the pictures of your products to be as vivid and as real as possible because that will generate these ownership perceptions. Retailers should work with that and not necessarily against it.”

Class dismissed.

Is Retail Facing Tectonic Upheaval?


“I am not a number, I am a free man.”

That defiant declaration was enshrined in pop culture in the late 1960s, courtesy of the British cult TV series The Prisoner and its main character, Number Six, played by Patrick McGoohan. The show was remade as a miniseries that aired in 2009.

The show came to mind while reading one of 2013’s most provocative predictions about the retail industry from futurist and consultant Doug Stephens, who uses the moniker Retail Prophet. (The most provocative of the year, hands down, was tech investor Marc Andreesen’s claim that physical retail stores are destined for death. We’re not sure we can side with him but love the debate.) 

Stephens, author of the 2013 book The Retail Revival, wrote in a blog post that a revolution is coming in retail, a revolution moving at “a velocity and scale that I suspect will be incomprehensible compared to all that came before it.”


He prophesied an era of “massive customization.” It will transcend, according to Stephens, the accelerating adoption of mass customization in which consumers partly customize mass-produced goods to meet their individual preferences and aesthetic tastes. Nearly 1,000 companies offering limited customization, representing 17 industry sectors, are listed here.

Stephens foresees a technology-fueled transformation of the manufacturing and retail landscape in which “virtually anything I want can be made for me. Just me.”

Stephens elaborated in an email exchange with Embodee:

“The primary reason I see this change moving faster than anything previous to it, is that unlike past revolutions, we are no longer bounded by the pace of industrial capacity. And this is what is freaking so many businesses out right now. We are, in essence, leaving the industrial era which tended to be very incremental and predictable in terms of growth and entering the digital era, which as we all know only too well, is exponential and tangential in nature.  

“Therefore, the unprecedented capacity for consumers to source, create and design according to their personal preferences, matched with the ability for companies to produce single units of those goods efficiently, will come faster and more profoundly than any previous consumer revolution.”

If such sweeping changes indeed happen, marketers will have to rethink mass-categorizing consumers into broad niches based on demographics and income.

In the dark fictional world of the The Prisoner, McGoohan’s Number Six repeatedly asked, “Who is Number One”? In the real and brighter world Stephens envisions, there is no mystery.

The advent of massive customization means each of us will be free, free to buy whatever we want and the precise way we want it. Each of us will be Number One. Or to use Stephens’ marketing parlance for the future of retail, our own unique Segment of One.