SHIFT: Too many choices? Nope, not enough — we want mass customization

Companies are offering way too many choices, offering dozens of mediocre products where a single good one would suffice. Samsung and Motorola pushing dozens of cellphones, Canon and Casio and Kodak hawking scores of camera choices, and Sony's bewildering 53 TVs — how can you choose just one from this sea of product spam?

Some electronics purveyors, such as Apple with its iPhone, have this figured out: Make one great product, mark up the price, sell millions. But what about companies that can’t stop inventing new models? We’re thinking these companies might as well go all-out. Sure, it would be perfect if each company made just one stellar product in each category, but let’s face it — they’re never going to do that. Instead, I have a radical suggestion.

More after the Continue jump.

Forget offering less choices. Offer more. Make products more customizable, so the choices offered are more akin to creating a custom-built device. It's called mass customization. The problem is, today's companies assert that they’re offering all those various product lines so people can get exactly the product they want. Not so. People get frustrated with too many choices, and studies show time after time that when presented with too many choices, buyers often shut down, making no choice at all. No sale.

Human Nature
Offer shoppers a choice between two jellies for their toast, they’ll pick one. Offer twenty, and they keep on walking, suffering from paralysis by analysis — too many choices. Forget it. But go to the deli counter and offer a custom sandwich with all your favorite ingredients on board, and everybody’s ready to eat. That’s because the choice belongs to the customer, and it doesn't involve a predefined group of products whose differences are too complicated to discern. Therein lies the difference between ready-made choices and something you’ve designed for yourself, building something especially for you.

Companies such as Garmin, for example, are already offering so many GPS units that you need a product matrix just to sort them out. Might as well just make their line all-custom, letting you choose screen size, Bluetooth capability, street name call-outs and traffic-reporting capability for yourself. It’s the difference between offering 60 models and maybe 200 different combinations.

Why Not?
You can already customize a PC at Dell’s website, choosing the color of your laptop, the amount of RAM, screen size, resolution and more. If you’re bewildered by all these customizations, the company offers pre-chosen products for people who have no idea what they want. Sony also started offering this kind of customization with its Vaio notebooks. Many other computer manufacturers do this, too. So do car companies, letting you order a car with the specific options you want.

From a company’s standpoint, there’s a downside to offering all this choice. Mass customization can be expensive. For instance, early in this century, a company called Customatix offered completely customized running shoes on a website, letting you practically design your footwear yourself. But the shoes cost $90, probably a money-losing price, thus contributing to the company’s demise. Even so, it was still a good idea. It was just before its time.

Today, manufacturing techniques have improved, and companies such as Samsung with its 50 cellphones have already proven they can create an absurd variety of models and sell them at reasonable prices. If manufacturers would design one excellent basic model and then offer customers a chance to add characteristics, features, and options to it, the too-many-choices syndrome would turn into products that are practically tailor-made.

Configurators for All
This kind of custom service is well suited to buying electronics online, a nearly effortless acquisition method we’ve already discovered is the best way to acquire tech products. As technology gets more sophisticated, 3D printing techniques similar to a Star Trek replicator will make it exponentially easier to offer custom choices, turning digital 3D models into real-world products. We want a configurator for every electronics product!

Put all this together, and you’ll see that we’re looking at a future of more choices, but they will be your custom choices, and not those of a manufacturer looking to kill comparison shopping with confusing product lines that are impossible to compare to those of their competitors. Nor will they be the choices of greedmeisters looking to elbow competitors out of the way in a shelf-space battle. After all, on the Internet, there's unlimited shelf space, especially when products are custom-built for and by their users. That's us.