Redefining the Meaning of Custom

Convinced that my cell phone was fast approaching antique status, my college-bound nephew suggested it was time for a new phone – and a new plan, preferably with him on it. Hence, my visit to a cell phone store to research “smart phones” and family plans.

My nephew, being 18, uses his phone primarily for texting, updating his Facebook status and watching videos on YouTube. I, being a traditionalist, actually like to talk on my phone (though the promise of a built-in navigation system also appealed to me). Unfortunately, my cell phone provider didn’t offer a package that worked for both of us – and as my nephew pointed out, “You deserve to have exactly what you want.” So I switched cell phone companies.

I’m currently going through something similar as I refinance my home to lower the interest rate. I have a short list of “must haves,” and a longer list of “like to haves,” and I’m shopping for a bank that can customize a mortgage to meet all my needs.

It occurs to me that there’s a lot of that going on these days.

It wasn’t so very long ago when “custom” connoted things that were expensive, elite, only for the ultra high end. But today we live in a world where even 18-year-olds believe that they deserve to have “exactly what they want.” And that has dramatically changed everything from car and cell phone shopping to kitchens and baths.

At first glance, this may not seem like such a good thing. After all, who wants a bunch of prospects who will shop their project around six ways from Sunday, expecting every single thing on their wish list, regardless of their budget (or lack thereof)? In a time where people are more value conscious than ever, isn’t it counterproductive to personalize every detail of a kitchen or bath, adding to the cost?

Well, it can be…but maybe it doesn’t have to be.

It’s important to remember that personalization has always been at the heart of what kitchen and bath designers do. It’s about meeting specific needs, whether those needs are for greater accessibility (see Better Baths), unique design specialties such as period home design (see Period Home Builder Leads Design Revolution), hard-to-find European products (see Showroom Showcases Euro Designs) or design to make life easier for a multi-generational family (see New Layout Makes Home More ‘Family Friendly’).

And the “new custom” isn’t so much about adding lots of expensive flourishes or offering 557 different finishes, but rather about finding the best “fit” between the clients and the integral elements of their kitchen or bath project.

Sure, this may take more thought and creativity on the front end...but it can also pay off with more satisfied clients in the long run. That’s because buying is an emotional process, and personalizing a project to meet the specific needs of the user adds not just to its functional value but also to its emotional value. And that’s critical, especially with female buyers, according to Bridget Brennan’s book Why She Buys, which Leslie Hart discusses in this month’s Ideas for Targeting Women in the Buying Process.

The redefining of custom has also raised the bar for manufacturers. For instance, in the cabinet market (see related Kitchen Cabinet Style & Design Guide), the demand for more “custom” options in semi-custom and even stock lines has forced high-end cabinet manufacturers to upgrade their custom cabinet offerings in order to further differentiate them from mid- and lower-priced lines. The result is better-quality products all around, with more choices, more design flexibility and better service. And that benefits everyone.

Technology has increasingly been changing the perception of what customization is all about, and at the same time, the economy has redefined what value means to today’s consumers. Even as the market continues to improve, understanding both of these new ideals is critical to continued success.