My first ever exposure to mass customization was probably when I was in elementary school. Like all kids that like the smell of roasted almonds and cotton candy, I loved going to the christmas market. One of the stands was especially popular with us kids especially for the fact that they didn't sell anything sweet. At this stand, they sold bracelets, and you could choose not only the stones but also little "letter" pendants to create words or just signify that this bracelet was your own, uniquely yours.
Now, admittedly it's debatable if the number of personalized and customized bracelets these christmas market vendors sold to us kids justifies the mass in mass customization, but the idea is the same: Take a product that everyone else offers as a ready-made, and let people configure their own. And then let lots of people do that. I'm sure all of you have seen examples in every day life, from being able to configure a car and its accessories to etchings of your name in our Ipod (which, by the way, is called personalization, and is a subset of customization).
So is this really new? Hm, not entirely. As with many things, mass customization has been here for a while. So what's all the fuss about?
My thoughts about that: I believe that changes to how we do things (buy things, produce things) come in stages. Take mobile: First people had to adopt mobile phones, then smart phones, then advertisers and app developers had to pick up, and now everyone is talking about it, and in the future mobile will probably change a lot about how we do things. Similarly with mass customization: First people had to be online for it to work efficiently, then some big firms like NikeID took some risks and offered mass customization and thereby educated consumers about this opportunity to take more control, and now is the era where more startups (like us) jump on the wagon and offer many different variations and products in a mass customization context.
I personally have observed that there are a lot more mass customizers in Germany, but I feel that with companies like Zazzle here, or with German startups like Spreadshirt and us expanding to the US, the trend will pick up here as well. And you know what they say about the US: Everything is bigger here! :)
To learn more about mass customization (examples), visit Milk or Sugar's mass customization portal, Anita Windisman's well written blog "flexistuff" on the subject or Prof. Piller's perspectives on the topic.
What's your opinion on mass customization and its future?