Ah, Black Friday: What would the post-Thanksgiving shopping bonanza be without a visit to the local mall? This year, I was keen to perform some gumshoe research on a theme I've been talking about all year long: mass customization, a product strategy that's ready for prime time across multiple industries.

A trip to the Natick Mall (yes, "Mall," no longer "Collection," New Englanders) reveals that mass customization isn't just the future; it's the present. In fact, it's hiding in plain sight. Build-a-Bear Workshop, Hallmark, Lego, and LensCrafters are all stores in the Natick Mall that offer significant customization for consumer products. Burberry is the latest Natick Mall vendor to offer mass customization; I am quoted in Time magazine this week (here, but subscription required to view the link; page 82 in the December 5 paper edition) discussing how luxury clothing and customization fit together well. As I've written before, one of the benefits of employing mass customization is that it empowers consumers to create products that express their personalities — a particularly relevant feature for clothing and apparel products.

But the Natick Mall product that really caught my eye was the new NB Custom sneaker offering. New Balance isn't the trailblazer for sneakers; NikeID has been around since 1999, and other brands like Converse and Keds have been at the customization game for some time, too. But NB Custom has set up a kiosk in the Natick Mall that allows consumers to receive guided help configuring and designing their own customized sneakers on connected computers (see photo, below). New Balance, it turns out, is based right here in Boston, and as their own sign says, they manufacture the shoes locally and can ship them to buyers quickly. This was actually one of the key predictions we made about mass customization earlier this year (client account required to view the link): that mass-customized product strategies would help bring some manufacturing capacity and jobs back to the US because of the critical need for rapid time-to-customer delivery and highly skilled technical labor.

NB Custom and all the other customized offerings I saw at the mall also told me something else: that the Christmas season 2011 is the first (but not the last) mass-customized holiday shopping season.

Photo credit: J. P. Gownder