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Friday, Oct. 23, 2009 at 8:00 am

Let Them Build Before They Buy

By Brendan Regan
October 23rd, 2009

Us Grokkers are continuing to focus on what types of things eRetailers can work on to make Holiday Shopping more enjoyable (and persuasive) for their prospects.

Enter the “Product Configurator.” While it sounds a bit like an evil robot out of control, what we’re talking about today is simply an online application to allow prospects to customize a product on their way to buying it. This can be a lot of fun for online shoppers if done well, and lead to increased conversions or it can be a huge waste of money if the user experience isn’t really well thought out. If it’s planned out poorly, it may frustrate visitors and lead to a decrease in performance.

One of the main reasons survey takers give for NOT buying retail items online is the inability to touch/hold/feel the product before buying.  This is a challenge that almost all eRetailers have to work to overcome, and letting them see their customizations in real time as they play around with different configurations and features can be a good tactic to make sure people make it all the way through checkout.  It can also be a way to make gift shopping more fun–seeing the product “come alive” as you customize it for someone special on your shopping list can be very persuasive and exciting.  Finally, product configurators can be a great way to convert Early and Middle Stage buyers; those who aren’t quite ready to pull out their credit card yet.  The ability to save what they’ve configured can be a “hook” to get them back into the buying process, or at least allow you to market to them as time goes on.

When I think of being able to customize a product and buy it, I tend to think of sites like and who specialize in small items like hats, t-shirts, mugs, stickers, etc.  But I wanted to grab some more interesting examples for you, so let’s look at a couple West Coast companies who let bike riders have a little fun as they create unique products to purchase.

fixieExample #1: Mission Bicycle Company

In the mood to build a custom fixed-gear bicycle?  Probably not, but use your imagination!  This site’s product configurator takes you step-by-step through the process, using clear copy explanations, a progress indicator, and friendly assurances.  They manage to do this using plenty of white space in a clean layout and flow.

In the end, you can see a mockup of your bike’s design, which components you’ve chosen, and an itemized price.  My favorite part is that it doesn’t get too heavy into jargon, which would make the n00b feel intimidated.

timbuk2-1Example #2: Timbuk2

Once you’ve designed your fancy bicycle to ride around on the streets of San Francisco, you’ll need a cool bag to haul your laptop and other sundries, right?  This brings us to another West Coast company’s “build your own bag” product app.

Timbuk2′s site does a nice job of using actual photographic images as opposed to illustrative graphics.  It’s impressive that they cover the many permutations (bag types, colors, patterns, add-ons, etc.) with high-quality photos.  The flow through the options is very intuitive, and in the end you definitely feel like you’ve made something that reflects your tastes.  This makes NOT buying it very difficult!

So those are two examples in a very narrow niche.  I ask all Grok readers: Who else is doing a good job with this type of online app?  Who does it well in clothing?  Shoes? (other than Nike, please!)  Laptops?  Leave a comment about whose product configurator you like, why, and what product category it’s in.  Also chime in if you’re building something like this in time for Holidays 2009!

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Comments (29)

  1. thanks for great post!

  2. The fixed-gear bicycle website is a great example, as buyers really need to personalize before they buy.

    It’s not only about colors and look-and-feel, but also about comfort, favorite type of handlebars, etc.

    This example shows very rich product configuration possibilities, which is absolutely essential for buyers who know a lot about the product they’re interested in.

    This opens a new way of thinking about product configurators: instead of just colors, why not work hard to offer richer possibilities?

    Another great example is Dell: if you know enough about computers, you can make any combination you like.

  3. It’s interesting to read about the customization of something other than clothing and promotional items. Most small businesses still can’t afford a sophisticated system but as with all technology, it’s probably only a matter of time.

  4. Very useful post thanks! :)

  5. Very nice reading. I think that such sites have a big sense. Since you can’t see the product online it must be something else to make shopping more attractive like customizing it.

  6. Great article, it open my eyes

  7. Nice article to get example bike situs in company that need motivator to get move like bike gear.

  8. Thanks, this blogs justs keeps getting better

  9. Automobile websites have always been strong on this, but offering customizable equipment to consumers provides an excellent market niche that will help to drive sales in this economy. More companies should begin to offer customization services to give them a competitive edge in the marketplace.

  10. Not all businesses have the enough budget to get high quality system for their operations. Some companies can really give affordable customization service now. In this way, they can get more clients. Then in the long run, you’ll be able to get more established market.

  11. We have been looking at doing this type of thing for configuration of custom bags – but were a little reluctant based on costs. I think thought it may be worth it!

  12. Simply displaying several product photos at different angles is another solution, especially if a retailer is unable to afford a sophisticated customization program. Copywriting also plays a role in crossing the chasm of being unable to touch and feel products online.

  13. I like custom mini chopper.
    Is there online app to build it.

  14. [...] Source:Let Them Build Before They Buy Share and Enjoy: [...]

  15. Yeh Me To like custom mini chopper. And Yes There’s Online App To Build it Just Googleit

  16. I think that threadless is using a similar business model….

  17. thanks guy’s for sharing this post. Very inspiring me!

  18. [...] Grokdotcom: Let Them Build Before They Buy [...]

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  20. [...] Grokdotcom: Let Them Build Before They Buy [...]

  21. Anyone know of software that is available to allow other websites to add this functionality?

  22. This is a good example of good source of online shopping. If I were a online buyer I will definitely make sure that I’ll have quality products. Websites which sell products must improve their selling strategy through this information. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  23. It’s actually helpful to read about the modification of something apart from clothing and promotional goods. Many small businesses still can not have the funds for a sophisticated system nevertheless as with almost all technology, it is most likely only a matter of time.

  24. Interesting idea. I am also a online shopper and every time I visit an online seller I want to see the products in real but I know its impossible, so big ideas like yours is such a big help for online shoppers like me. I would like to modify and add colors if necessary to a certain products I want to purchase. Thank you for sharing some interesting insights and sites for shopping.

  25. A great idea anything that can get the customer to make it all the way to the checkout can only be good.

  26. Some companies can really give affordable customization service now. In this way, they can get more clients.

  27. Wow, clever idea. Is there an easier way to incorporate this technology into specific websites via a pre-packaged software or the like? Of course, car company sites offer great examples of configuration options, with color, trim packages, and other options in a very sophisticated interface – expensive to duplicate, however!

  28. Well your concept is true but only for products that really do come with different options shapes or colors like cars. Books, magazines and digital downloads do not have those options. But it was a very good article. It would apply to a spa day etc pick what you want for the perfect day etc.

  29. My take away Brendon was the “interaction” part of an eRetailer site. That’s what keeps me interested in many sites. My ability to “build” what I want, the way I want it.

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