Manufacturers offering personalized everything

Filed under: Retail |

In an age of personalized Web sites, iPods and a focus on the individual, it should come as no surprise that more companies are letting consumers personalize their purchases.

For a price, buyers can get customized Hershey bars, M&Ms, Wheaties boxes with their pictures and even their pets’ mugs on a Jones Soda bottle. And now Ketchup kingpin H.J. Heinz, the giant of a $500 billion packaged food industry, wants a piece of the action.

Customized ketchup bottles can be ordered at www.myheinz.com for $6.

“Consumers want products designed for themselves,” said Wendy Joyce, senior brand manager. “This gives them a personal connection with the brand.”

But the vanity products don’t come cheap. Last year, Master Foods USA, a unit of Mars, began selling customized M&M’s with 8-character messages. The minimum order is four, eight-ounce bags for $45 plus $12.95 shipping.

Within a few years, the division expects to reach sales of $100 million annually, said Jim Cass, general manager of My M&Ms. Beginning next month, he said, the company will imprint corporate logos.

Hershey Gifts sells customized five-pound chocolate bars for $50.

General Mills has seen double-digit growth this year for custom Wheaties boxes, said Greg Zimprich, a spokesman. The boxes, which sell for $29.95, can be personalized with photos and words.

Many credit Jones Soda with starting the trend in 1998, when it began selling “My Jones” personalized drink bottles.

Photos and script for personalized labels can be purchased for $34.95 for 12 bottles.

Sales of personalized bottles have grown 40 percent annually, said Peter van Stolk, CEO of Jones Soda.

“People never throw away these bottles,” he says. “Our brand becomes a positive framework within the walls of their home.”

New shopping services online

The online shopper is in for something new. Mpire.com and Slide.com are offering options to the traditional method of finding items online.

While these services are still too new to have gained much of a following, analysts said they have at least shown that innovation in this retail category was far from dead.

Mpire has perhaps more immediate promise, analysts said. Introduced in late June, the site allows shoppers to view the most recent selling prices of millions of items, based on data from eBay, then compare prices and other attributes of items selling on a handful of major sites like Overstock.com, eBay, Craigslist and Amazon.com.

CEO Matthew Hulett got the idea after working at Zillow.com, which attracted attention earlier this year when it began listing the projected selling prices for homes and condominiums. Unlike Zillow, though, Mpire is earning money from merchants, who pay the site 10 to 20 cents every time someone clicks a link.

Mpire plans to include social networking components on the site by offering users the ability to send items to friends, add product reviews or link to articles about products.

Slide.com offers Web surfers a slideshow of product photos. Instead of offering links to other Web sites, the site brings the shopping experience directly to the user.

Led by a PayPal founder, Max Levchin, the site allows users to select products from various sites. For instance, users can choose to view women’s shoes from Zappos.com or jewelry from Bluenile.com, and those items will be displayed in a continuous loop, along with product descriptions. When users click an item, a browser window opens to the purchase page on the merchant’s site.

Buyers who are interested in the wares of a particular eBay seller can receive a feed of that seller’s items and the time remaining in the auctions, assuming the seller signs up to provide the free service.

Slide earns a commission, usually 5 percent to 15 percent, for every purchase made through the site.

The service pulls products from only a handful of sites, including BlueNile, Zappos and Ujena.com, a swimwear site, but during the next few weeks, Levchin said, Slide will add about 50 retailers, including Gap, Old Navy and CompUSA.

Sites that distribute merchandise on Slide, Mpire and others say the services are an important avenue for growth.

EBay, Amazon and others have opened much of their technology to outside companies, allowing the startups to more easily transfer pricing data, photos, product descriptions and other information directly to their sites.

Smoothies attract customers

Smoothies have increased Souper Salad’s drink to meal ratio by 5 percent, indicating that a large percentage of consumers are attracted to smoothies as an alternative to carbonated beverages.

Souper Salad introduced fruit smoothies to its menu on July 1.

Sooupah Smoothies average 10-12 percent of Souper Salad’s total drink sales and in some restaurants as much as 20 percent, said Neil Naroff, marketing director for Souper Salad. “Sooupah Smoothies sales are three times what we anticipated,” he said

Souper Salad operates 88 restaurants in 12 states, three of which are in the Colorado Springs area.

Joan Johnson covers retail for the Colorado Springs Business Journal.