Redefining Custom

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Standard, everyday luxury brands are so yesterday. Today, consumers define luxury as a version of something that is customized for their unique needs. That's why Mercedes bought AMG, a customization company that was upgrading stock Mercedes vehicles and selling them at a hefty mark-up. Now Mercedes is able to "customize" its own brand.

The Scion division of Toyota was configured as a customizable brand. You can buy custom-made shirts and pants at Land's End. You can get your Sub Zero refrigerator custom built to fit your kitchen, with inset panels that match the rest of your cabinetry.

Think customization is just for the rich? The concept of having things made just for you reaches down to everybody. Stand in line at Starbucks, Subway or Cold Stone Creamery and you will see customization at its finest. Need a new computer custom made for gaming? For CAD? For recording music? You can get a Dell made just the way you want it. Go to Nike's website, and there you can design and buy your own custom-made shoes. They're called NikeID, and for a nominal premium, you can choose the style, support, pattern and colors that you want.

Now that brands have become so ubiquitous, the new luxury is a customized version of a luxury brand. This "new niche marketing" is a strong movement among consumers jaded by "one-size-fits-all" solutions. There's a longing for hand-made, one-of-a-kind everyday objects with a hi-tech twist.

What makes this return to "hand-made" so unique is the use of manufacturing technology. Unlike one-of-a-kind commissioned art objects, these new customized products are produced using technologically advanced methods that allow the manufacturer to create a custom item using standard parts, at a price only slightly above an off-the-shelf item.

Even though you can design your own Scion, you're choosing your options from a pre-defined menu. Just because you want it, Toyota will not build a Scion that is three inches longer than standard. They will, however, let you choose colors, spoilers, wheels and even the option of illuminating your beverage holder. Likewise, the NikeID custom shoe program uses standard Nike offerings in a combination that makes the end result unique. And, although you can walk into a Starbucks and order more than 5,000 different drink combinations, these blends actually are based on a standardized set of ingredients and cup sizes.

A rigorous standardization of raw materials is imperative for a custom operation to be profitable. No mass manufacturer offers complete customization. Try asking for a shot of Kahlua in your Frappacino or Mac OSX with your Dell workstation. Companies can afford to give you a custom version of their standard offering, as long as it is their version of custom.

So how do you, as a custom installation professional, sell customization? The only way to sell customization is by supplying a productthat you can customize. If you offer a proposal with a Crestron touch panel and a line-listed price, then you are offering a standard product. Offer the same Crestron panel priced to include your own custom -GUI, and you can charge a higher price (because it includes custom programming). You have made the item unique, and you have added real value to the sale.

Compare this form of customization-where you are adding value to a product by making it unique-with the typical form of customization that most CI dealers rely on: trying to stretch a Scion by three inches.

Toyota knows what changes can made to a Scion and still have it fall under the banner "custom." There are a pre-determined number of options. In comparison, a good CI dealer who offers a truly custom experience for his client should also know the short list of customizable items that he can offer.

Toyota certainly has the engineering prowess and manufacturing muscle to build your Scion three inches longer. The cost to the organization is so great, however, that it could never be recovered in the sale of that one vehicle. So too is the immeasurable cost to the CI business when it tries to satisfy each client with a "we'll do whatever it takes" approach to engineering and design. Instead, the savvy CI dealer should rely on his or her manufacturing partners to supply products that they can either purchase customized, or modify in the field.

To achieve customization, you should use products that require your engineering expertise. In addition you should use products your manufacturing partners can custom-build for you.

Lighting and control systems requiring your programming are good. They allow you to build a custom interface specifically for your customer. That's a lot more powerful than selling the same "plug and play" systems available through retailers and distribution.

It's easy to compete against a proposal containing a simple keypad system. Yours is built specifically for the customer's needs, and when programmed, offers a more flexible, intuitive interface. Plus, yours should be priced to include the programming to make it harder to "shop."

There are manufacturers in the CI business capable of custom building products specifically for you. Room treatment products are a good example. They are custom built, provide a tremendous amount of sonic benefit, and they require engineering expertise. Theater design and seating falls into the same category; there are manufacturers capable of custom building fixtures and furniture for your theaters. That's a step up from the everyday recliner. And there are several speaker manufacturers (mine included) that offer custom-sized cabinets for built-in applications. Again, you are selling a one-of-a-kind speaker package that can't be shopped, and if designed properly, it offers a true benefit to the customer.

There are products that you can add value to, and products that are made to your specifications. These two categories of customizable product allow you to maintain a standard offering, like Toyota, but offer your customers something built specifically for them. That's the future of custom.

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