Have-It-Your-Way Web Sites Start to Catch On

On the internet, nobody knows you eat mango Cheerios.

On the internet, nobody knows you eat mango Cheerios.

Except General Mills, which is happy to sell it — and a variety of other customizable flavors of cereal — over the Web for $12 per box.

From breakfast kibble to makeup to cars, big companies such as Ford Motor, General Mills and Procter & Gamble have launched Web sites to give customers the ultimate buying experience: the ability to acquire self-designed products for a premium.

Theyre not alone. Fashioned after Dell Computers direct manufacturing model, many leading companies are starting to offer "build-to-order" customized products on the Internet on a large scale. Companies are selling online customized jeans, sneakers, coffee, vitamins, bicycles, cars, golf clubs, cosmetics, CDs, greeting cards, candy and more.

"With this process, companies can create a lot of product differentiation and loyalty," said Ford Cavallari, executive vice president at Adventis, a Boston management consulting firm. And customers are willing to pay a little more for a unique product.

Today, the Internet and digital technology are helping to make customization an affordable offering, said James Vogtle, director of e-commerce at The Boston Consulting Group. The key is that most of the companies have to build a standardized architecture that lets consumers combine a variety of options.

This spring, Ford began to allow customers to personalize their vehicles by adding different accessories to a car online, using an interactive visual tool from EyeVelocity.

"Providing customers the tools to personalize their vehicles is essential to ensuring that varying consumer needs are met and exceeded," said Matt Kesler, Ford Vehicle Personalization sales and marketing manager.

On a smaller scale, General Mills Mycereal.com lets consumers create their own cereal — choosing from 100 ingredients — and have it delivered to their doorstep. The site, in beta testing and available only to select consumers, allows consumers to formulate everything from Chocolate Cheerios to Mango Total.

Since 1999, Nike has offered customized sneakers through its Nike iD program on its Web site. Consumers can choose the type of shoe, colors, material and even a logo of up to eight characters to put on the shoes.

Nike then transmits the orders via computer to specially equipped plants in China and Korea, where the information is downloaded to a production line. The service costs only $10 extra, and the shoes take about thee weeks to reach the consumer.

This sea change is happening in the cosmetics industry at San Francisco-based Reflect.com, which was founded in 1999. "We looked at the beauty industry, and women were always dissatisfied with the products out there," said Richard Gerstein, vice president of design and marketing at Reflect. "We created a solution."

Reflect gathers information from women and then formulates makeup to meet their needs. Customers can select packaging they like, and even put their own label on their makeup.

Reflect has created a back-end computer system to make the products as soon as a customer places an order. It takes roughly 10 days for a product to reach the consumer, Gerstein said.

The cost of the products is comparable to department store makeup prices, with a tube of lipstick costing $17 and mascara costing $16.50. Reflect profits from being both manufacturer and distributor, Gerstein said. The company has more than 1 million registered users of its site.

"The benefits of customization are enormous," Gerstein said. "But if you are not giving someone a phenomenal product, they will not come back."