Most mass customization businesses are still rather small. Really small, if we compare their sales and volumes with the comparable category of standard products (I am just talking about consumer goods here, for industrial / BtoB-goods, this is a very different story!). This holds true for most start-ups and companies dedicated solely on mass customization, and the MC units of large established players.
While I do not believe that mass customization at any time will overtake mass produced (or better: high variety, build to stock) assortments, many MC businesses today face the demand to scale their business up. This also is a main topic we want to discuss during the MIT Smart Customization Seminar on May 20-21 at MIT.
While preparing for the seminar, and talking to some of our speakers, I drafted these four factors that influence the ability to scale customization up, i.e. increase the volumes:
a) Short delivery times. This is what Zazzle and Spreadshirt learned: When you are able to deliver in 24h hours, you have an entirely new market segment, the gift and occasion market. Also take Chocri. With their custom chocolates they do not compete with Mars or Lindt, but with Hallmark and other greeting card companies, or also with book publishers that produce these typical gift books.
b) Using affiliates and networks. Using your MC capabilities as a platform to enable advanced customers (retailers, country subsidiaries, and other distributors) to customize an assortment that then is produced in small batches (or on demand) to cover local market requirements.
This is what some sports companies do: Connecting mass customization and mass production into one model. In the end, a mass produced item is nothing else then a configuration in a solution space. The main driver for large scale customization in a consumer business will be not the average consumer, but some "customers" customizing for the mass. Like a local retailer that spots a market opportunity for her local market and wants customizes a special batch just for her school. The coach customizing for his team. Or even a country subsidiary of a firm that is creating a special assortment to meet the requirements of a local market.
While this has not been covered as "mass customization" in the past, I would argue, it is! One can apply exactly the same principles compared to customizing something "one to one" and on-demand for an individual consumer.
c) Marketing communications for mass customization. This is a totally open point, see the previous posting!. There is no research at all (that I know) on how to "communicate" mass customization. What is the best communication policy for mass customization? (in the moment it seems to place "me", "my" or "individual" in front of the brand name).
Until today, researchers have focused on the interaction with customers once they have entered the system (there is plenty of research on how to design the interaction experience in a configurator etc.) But how to communicate customization? This is a major factor to reach new audiences. When I ask during a lecture or talk who in the audience has a custom product or knows about the ability to get one, the majority still has no idea!
d) Internal change management. Often, the ability to scale mass customization up is constrained by the company itself (especially if you are a large firm like yours). In most companies, MC still is seen as a "pilot" or "something special", often just with a marketing / PR focus. As long as MC is seen internally as such an oddity, it will not scale up. I have seen this in many large corporations. In fact, I just do know very (!) few established large consumer good companies that really have a serious MC offering (serious being defined as "if I close it, I realize it on the balance sheet"). But as long as you don't have a business system that really can scale up (and also has the motivation to do so), it will be a difficult field to achieve.