Mass production may give us efficiency, more affordable prices and convenience, but a handful of new tech companies say their more custom, less assembly-line-oriented commerce models provide something else: a deeper, more personalized connection to the products people choose to bring into their lives.
During a Social Media Week panel on Tuesday (Feb. 14), which asked "Are We in a Post-Consumer Age?," Peter Weijmarshausen, CEO and co-founder of 3-D printing and design company Shapeways, said his company allows people to take part in the design process—which ultimately creates a stronger relationship with their products. While the technology the company employs is still in its infancy, he said, it already allows people to customize products like jewelry and accessories and ceramic cups.
"[We] want to be involved in the products that we care about," he said. "[This] enables people to rediscover the value of the goods that they buy."
Bradford Shellhammer, co-founder and chief creative officer for design-centric online retailer Fab.com, said he doesn't think people necessarily need customized goods, but agreed that consumers would rather have products that have a history.
"I think more people want to have stories about the things in their life," he said.
On Fab.com, that means consumers can browse product descriptions that include the designers' commentary and interesting bits about the products' origins, rather than just basic size information and shipping price estimate. But Shellhammer said that product "stories" can include the tale of how someone found a pair of jeans or, simply, that the jeans themselves fit perfectly.
On Etsy, an e-commerce hub for handmade goods, creative director Randy Hunt explained that consumers and creators can communicate directly without the "sanitizing" effects of corporate public relations, therefore creating their own narrative around the products.
In launching Fab.com eight months ago, Shellhammer said their hunch was that people want context around their products and, with 2 million members, it seems their theory is bearing fruit.
"I hope there's this backlash to Walmart and these other retailers dictating what everyone is wearing [and] shopping," he said.
Not everybody agreed that shoppers will always seek out a deep back story when picking out a pair of slacks. While Cliff Kuang, founding editor of Co.Design, said that great products should be placed within the context of their peers, he doubted the value of stories around all products. For example, the story behind Apple's iPad is "a really sad one," Kuang said—likely referring to the low-cost overseas labor Apple is reported to have employed to produce its popular phones and tablets.
Ultimately, whether emerging technology lets people customize their own products or learn more about the designers and stories behind them, said Shellhammer, "The consumer feels empowered to make the choice."