Will the market for individually customised products in grocery ever really develop beyond pick'n'mix? Steve Hemsley reports Stripping to their underwear in Levi Strauss' giant San Francisco store is a small price to pay for some of the world's most fashion-conscious consumers. The brand's largest outlet is promoting a marketing concept called Original Spin where customers can enter an infra-red body scanner which will record their exact measurements. The company then manufactures a bespoke pair of jeans which will fit the wearer perfectly. Levi has been testing the market for bespoke items since 1996 when it ran a slightly less technologically advanced pilot scheme called Personal Pair at its London store. Assistants would use an old fashioned tape measure and feed information into a computer linked to the factory. Yet the idea was scrapped after the 18-month trial, and instead Levi launched a customisation service in its big city stores. Consumers buying its engineered jeans can select the braiding or sewing style and instore graphic artists are on hand to incorporate individual designs into garments. The company even admits that all it has done over the last few years is put out "marketing feelers". Other clothing brands to identify the trend towards "brands on demand" include Adidas and Nike. Adidas has launched the Customization Experience for its footwear which uses a 3D foot scanner, while rival Nike allows consumers to choose the words they want stitched on to their shoes. In the computer sector, Dell is famous for asking its customers for exact details of what they want before it builds their computer. Marketing industry experts claim such personal service could become the norm as 21st century consumers crave individuality but still want to be associated with key brand names. Consumers want to belong ­ which is why brands exist in the first place. But people also want to stand out as an individual. The permutations and combinations that manufacturers can create nowadays means people can do both. They add that the grocery sector will increasingly be asked to serve this psyche and that retail environments could change beyond recognition as stores search for the most cost-effective method of providing their customers with tailor-made versions of their favourite brands. In the United States, food giant General Mills is experimenting in this area with an online initiative called www.mycereal.com. The venture, currently being tested, enables consumers to formulate a breakfast cereal to their individual tastes and health concerns and have packs delivered to their door. Anyone expressing an early interest in the service was sent a $5-off email coupon at the end of February but exactly when www.mycereal.com will be fully operational is unclear. Perhaps significantly the scheme did not even merit a mention on the main General Mills web site at the end of last month. The company began testing the service last November claiming it wanted to understand consumer needs better and encourage others to renew their interest in cereal. Marc Belton, president of General Mills' Big C cereal division, says that when the site is fully operational, more than one million combinations will be possible compared to the 250-plus varieties on offer in grocery stores. The products will be supplied in single-serve containers with a personalised nutrition profile developed by licensed nutritionists for each individual. It will be shipped to a consumer's home within four working days with each serving costing around $1. "Customisation is an emerging trend and shifts focus from the product to the consumer. The cost of our service will be the same as other customised breakfast options like a bagel and cream cheese, or a serving of coffee," says Belton. A similar online service that is up and running is Procter & Gamble's San Francisco based Reflect.com which the company claims was born from a desire to meet the individual beauty needs of women. Beauty experts and research scientists have composed a set of questions which users must answer, giving details of their skin type, for example, and P&G uses the information to create a tailor-made mascara, lipstick, lipliner or foundation. David Taylor, group director of brand strategy at strategic marketing consultancy Added Value, says P&G has been particularly secretive about how popular Reflect.com has been, but his contacts in the US claim the service has not been as successful as expected because consumers have been reluctant to spend up to 20 minutes filling in the questionnaire. Maybe P&G has over-played the personalisation card, because women are so used to buying products off the shelf or asking for advice in store. However, any company, grocery or not, thinking about taking a brand down the bespoke route must tread carefully. The technological, logistical and consumer research must be spot-on. Brand owner have to ask themselves how much mental space people really have to dedicate to these kind of services. Have the majority of consumers really got enough spare time to worry about getting the perfect lipstick or to order a tailor-made cereal? Integrated marketing agency The Marketing Store counts Asda among its clients. Director of planning Mark Brown used to work in the advertising industry on projects for P&G, Kellogg and Unilever. He says brand managers in the grocery sector are always trying to devise ways to meet the growing consumer need for self-expression and individuality. "I have come across this dynamic for personalised products many times, and in my experience the idea rarely gets past the concept stage because in commercial terms it is something that is difficult to scale up to achieve the volumes necessary to make it cost-effective," he says. He adds that pick and mix for sweets and cheeses were early example of retailers entering this area, and suggests grocery stores could expand the idea with well staffed areas providing a wide choice of ingredients for individual recipes on demand. Yet he is sceptical about whether this entire area will ever be more than a niche market. "Taking the mycereal.com idea a step further, you can imagine a fixing in a supermarket offering a pick and mix style choice of cereal ingredients, but in reality it is unlikely to work without significant investment. A store would have to analyse whether it could generate a significant financial return from offering such as service, while there are also food safety regulations to address," he says. Yet being able to provide consumers with personal adaptations of their favourite products is perhaps the ultimate in customer service. John Noble, director of British Brands Group, believes it is one of the biggest challenges that grocery faces over the next 10 years. He says two extreme markets are emerging in the industry: "The big brands have spent years taking market segments, finding innovative ways to drive prices down through mass production, and then using global marketing techniques to benefit from economies of scale. Now, they are also having to offer a bespoke service to individual consumers," he says. Customisation of food products has been around in the fast food market for many years, of course, with people selecting their ingredients down to the final detail, such as whether to have gerkins with their burger or pepper on their take-away sandwich. Yet it remains difficult for packaged food brands to offer a similar service because of the perceived supply chain difficulties and concern about profitability. One man keeping a keen eye on this area is John Zealley, who began his career in the marketing department of Reflect.com's parent Procter & Gamble. Today he is a partner in the Global Consumer Goods & Services Practice at Accenture, working mainly as a consultant in the food and consumer packaged goods and retail industries. He says the grocery sector has to bridge the gap between consumer aspirations and reality and that the industry must brace itself for considerable change over the next two to three years. "Manufacturers will need to devise different production methods and use new technology such as the internet to make it a cost-effective option to provide bespoke products, while retailers will have to move to the next level of customer service. They did it before when they began to offer chilled products, and they will have to start remerchandising stores if more consumers begin to demand personalised products to complete their shopping mission," he says. This view is echoed by Robert Jones, consultant director of branding consultancy Wolff Olins, who says retailers can no longer ignore the changes in how modern consumers are thinking. "We are out of the selfish eighties but not back in the forties and fifties when people were part of a community. We are somewhere in between, with people liking the idea of having their own mind, but still wanting to belong. Grocery suppliers and retailers must respond to this mood," he says. "The grocery retailing model of the future will not be to have three of four different store formats within a chain that are rolled out across the country, but to have maybe four retail frameworks that can be adapted locally as consumer demands dictate." Concern has been raised that the values of a manufacturer's or retailer's core brand could be diluted if they move too far too quickly towards offering personalised products. Jones argues this will not happen if the beliefs a brand has always stood for are not compromised. "I remember Tesco's Terry Leahy saying to me that Tesco succeeds because it likes its customers. That is a simple statement, demonstrating no social barriers to accessing the brand, and means Tesco does not have too much difficulty developing different store formats. In the future we will see retailers and suppliers having one basic idea, but alternative ways of delivering it," he says. Food retailing and manufacturing consultancy Longhouse is currently working on a secret project for one of its key clients. Managing director Gareth Jones says brand managers in the food industry are discovering from their own in-depth research that consumer buying habits are changing. Jones claims there are two types of grocery consumer; those who hate cooking and never want to cook, and those who like to cook sometimes or often. Studies carried out by Longhouse for a major food brand have revealed that the word convenience' is now seen as a compromise in the eyes of the first group, with convenience foods regarded as poorer quality than something cooked at home. For the second group, an ability to select quality ingredients to create their own recipes is a key demand made on retailers. "Both groups are getting to see and taste different foods because they eat out more and they want to experience these at home and be able to buy different combinations when they shop. "The British have become restaurant literate very quickly. There is also a well-being' message being conveyed via the media which is making people stop and think about the food they are buying." Catherine Shuttleworth, director of the Marketing Store, agrees that brand managers are beginning to listen more to their consumers and the research her company is undertaking reveals details of how people are actually using core brands. The information being gathered is enabling food manufacturers to develop new products. "One way of meeting the cost implications of providing bespoke brands is to ask users of a product how they eat it, creating variants to meet that usage, and charging a premium for it. An example of this would be Heinz's Cheesy Beans which were launched after the brand discovered many people ate beans with cheese," she says. This, she says, is an area where retailers with a strong own label offer can benefit because they can react quicker to eating trends and remove lines if food fashions change. "Bread is a perfect example of how the launch of different variants has affected the market. Some 15 years ago, the choice was largely limited to white, brown, sliced and medium. Now there are all kinds, including bread aimed at pregnant women," she says. As consumers become ever more demanding and the competition to win their custom gets fiercer, it will be the brands meeting their needs exactly that will benefit. Yet a sound business model must be found because, unlike those jeans buyers in San Francisco, the trend for bespoke products is not something the grocery trade seems prepared to lose its shirt over. {{COVER FEATURE }}