Supported by the Internet, the devotion of fans, and the loyalty of sports enthusiasts to team and league-based clothing and footwear, customised sports apparel is being sought by consumers across the US and, increasingly, around the globe. As well as enabling suppliers to mass produce personalised products, the process is helping to reduce inventory reports Mona Frastaci.

By focusing on garment decoration and fulfilment, Minneapolis, Minnesota-based provider of team and league licensed e-commerce solutions FanBuzz is making its mark on the leg of the industry that deals with the personalisation and customisation of sports and athletic wear. With CustomFan, a mass customisation solution that allows fans to design their own team licensed apparel online, and by purchasing blank goods and decorating them in accordance with the choices of the consumer, FanBuzz has become the largest seller of personalised jerseys in the United States, according to CEO Scott Killian.

"There's a great deal of hand-labour that goes into producing [a customised garment]. We developed this capability and now we're doing 50,000 units per year," says Killian, regarding this year's projection for personalised jerseys. "If someone else can put a name and a number on a jersey one at a time, then we can do the same, but we want to be in a position where we do that directly for the customer," he continues.

FanBuzz offers two separate products: personalised jerseys and the CustomFan products. Forty per cent of customers opt to get their own name - or something other than a player's name - on their jersey, while sixty per cent of customers prefer a jersey with the name of the respective player. Customers get the names of superstars as well as obscure players, according to Killian. "People have a lot of quirky things they're into, and in a lot of cases they want the name of someone on a jersey that they'll never be able to find in a store," he says.

In addition to personalisation for the consumer, the CustomFan process eliminates redundancy in inventory. "In other situations it's a matter of trying to guess which teams will be the most popular eight months out, so you end up with too much of one team and not enough of the other. Unfortunately the supply chain and manufacturers are not exactly agile suppliers - you can't go to them in the thick of the season and say you need more of a particular item - they just can't be responsive quickly enough, they aren't set up to do that," says Killian. "It's been a problematic business over the years for this reason, and that's what tipped us off to this concept: we buy the same products but we buy them undecorated and we buy them on demand."

When hooded fleece turned out to be an unexpectedly popular item this past winter, FanBuzz had no problem responding to the demand. "We never would have carried that kind of inventory for that item," explains Killian. "But the customers could get it, and they could get whatever they wanted on it." More than 170 US universities are participating in the CustomFan programme, with professional sports properties in the works for the future.

Interactive web interface
CustomFan combines an interactive web interface that gives fans the opportunity to design their own officially licensed college apparel in real-time. They select from a range of team logos, garment styles, colours and sizes, choosing from more than 500,000 product variations of college licensed apparel. Designed to protect the trademarks of each licensor, CustomFan only offers approved design elements and combinations to the consumer.

The CustomFan system has real-time inventory management control and can be run off of an established site or as part of an online store already run by FanBuzz. Founded in 1996, FanBuzz powers the official online stores for some of the largest sports and media brands in the United States including the National Hockey League (NHL),, The Sporting News and more than 50 professional sports teams and colleges.

The online capabilities of sports customisation are leading to a loosening of restrictions. Sixty per cent of universities and colleges allow customisation options that differ from the school's traditional colours, according to Killian, while forty per cent of the schools allow products to be made in the traditional colours only. "Schools have never allowed this to happen before. I think they've recognised that when students leave the school, despite efforts to maintain a relationship with the alumni, the school has a hard time doing that," explains Killian. "The Internet helps keep that relationship going and is the easiest way for a consumer or alumni to get access to the product."

According to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, more than $14 billion in team and league licensed merchandise is sold in the United States and Canada each year. With the bulk of these products sold regionally, it is difficult or impossible for displaced fans to get access to merchandise of their favourite teams and players. "It's a great tool to speak to the customer as an individual," says FanBuzz's Killian. "We present the components to the customer and let them create and get the product they want, rather than having to choose from a selection our buyers picked out eight months ago."

"We present the components to the customer and let them create and get the product they want, rather than having to choose from a selection our buyers picked out eight months ago"

As part of the recognition of the Internet as a solid channel of distribution, many schools and sports apparel brands are rethinking how their products are reproduced, according to Killian, and visibility is one of the key assets FanBuzz has going for it. "Licensing directors have a level of security they might not have if it were in retail stores - their risk is reduced," explains Killian. "There's a willingness to try new things and this gives fans more choices. If a customer is going to personalise a product they want something no one else has."

FanBuzz offers jerseys for some teams in the National Football League (NFL) and Major League Baseball (MLB), for all of the National Hockey League (NHL) and Nascar, while on the college level lacross, rugby and crew are some of the most popular items.

Killian describes a reversal of traditional business concepts that backs the approach of CustomFan. "The difference is a company that builds and sells products versus a company that sells and builds products, which is what we do. Companies limit what they sell so they can streamline, but they're doing so at the cost of choice for the consumer. CustomFan is about mass customisation - we're mass producing customised products; we stock raw materials and provide finished goods on demand," says Killian.

"That approach has been met with a lot of favouritism with the consumer with products in a number of industries. The Internet is such an exciting platform to do it because you can have a personal relationship with the customer that you can't have at retail."

"The difference is a company that builds and sells products versus a company that sells and builds products"

By not holding any decorated inventory, inventory cost is minimised. In addition, it is the process of putting the raw materials through the CustomFan personalisation process that is adding value to the product. "It adds value to something that's a commodity," Killian explains. "We let other people figure out how to do the commodity part - those items don't really become worth something until we decorate them."

New approach and mindset
The ideas behind CustomFan display a change in thinking and a new approach to old concepts.

"It's a major philosophical shift because normally companies bring in decorated goods and have inventory that's sitting there," explains Killian. "We're reducing the cost of goods to the lowest common denominator, and through the application of labour and technology - a cost we can control - we add value to the product. The key is that we're not adding value to the product until it is sold, instead of sitting on that value all the time as an inventoried product," he continues.

"The amount of inventory goes down, margins go up, and the rate of inventory turn goes up - it's a very novel concept that doesn't work for everything, but this is a niche business: the customer is very emotionally drawn to the product and has a powerful connection to it."

FanBuzz is a company that is not trying to be fashion forward. "It's just not what we're about," Killian explains. "We're interested in servicing the basic staple silhouettes that are relevant year in and year out." The goal of the FanBuzz is also not about gaining recognition from the consumer.

"FanBuzz doesn't mean anything to the customer and it's never going to," Killian explains. "We're not interested in creating a brand. We don't care if the customer ever knows who we are; we're just interested in servicing a demand," explains Killian. "It's about getting vertical in the sense that we can source the blanks from wherever we want and we control what's put on them rather than having to chose from designs brought to us by designers. We're in control of the product, whereas you aren't at all when you're buying finished goods from someone."

The goal is also about offering something to sports apparel brands. "It really enhances the brand because people get to interact with it in a way that was never possible before. We help a brand extend itself and we take care of the minutia on our end."

While three licensed apparel manufacturers are preparing to announce their involvement with the company, FanBuzz is also in the process of selecting one major partner in each of the major sports categories to handle the decoration of all of the sports apparel items for that professional sports property. "We'll buy the silhouettes and decorate them," explains Killian. "So there's a guarantee that the bulk of the assortment will be centred around their brand, and it gives them good branding position. We want to be the last mile - they get to be the on-field brand, we just want to decorate the products for them."

"When we started five years ago we did what everyone else did, we had stores and catalogues and stuck it on the Internet. The problem is that the Internet is different because you have a personalised relationship with the customer, and if you're not capitalising on that then you're losing.

The way you engage the customer is totally different," explains Killian, describing what he has learned about dealing with online customers and conducting business over the Internet. "This is phase two for FanBuzz, and we're doing it in response to the marketplace and in response to what we've learned about doing things online. Phase one was setting up a business on the web, CustomFan is phase two - phase one was setting up the store, phase two is about taking advantage of the chance to interact with the customer."

"The Internet is different because you have a personalised relationship with the customer, and if you're not capitalising on that then you're losing"

Taking customer relationships to a new level
Also entering the realm of personalisation and customisation is sports apparel brand Nike, with its introduction of NikeID. This is a division of Nike and that was launched in November of 1999, one year after the launch of the main site. "People feel very personal about their athletic wear and shoes," says Beth Gorny, United States communications manager for Nike, explaining the reasons behind the creation of NikeID. "We knew we wanted to take the relationship with the customer to a new level, and to add something to that was very unique."

Behind NikeID lies a corporate desire to develop a tighter bond between the customer and the Nike brand. "We wanted to do something completely different and tighten the relationship with our customers," Gorny says.

The focus on the consumer is one of the most important elements of NikeID. "The whole thing is about relationships," explains Gorny. "We are really listening to consumer feedback and considering their suggestions." Nike's response to consumer feedback goes beyond giving the consumer what they want on a particular product and includes expanding the line of offerings based on what consumers are looking for. For example, the addition of the high-performance basketball shoe that was introduced this January as a result of customer requests. "We're taking personalisation even further in that way," Gorny says. "We're listening to what customers desires are in terms of what they want us to offer."

"Nike's response to consumer feedback goes beyond giving consumers what they want and includes expanding the line of offerings based on what consumers are looking for"

NikeID initially began with shoes and was expanded last winter to include equipment, with the site offering items identified by Nike as those people wanted to have personalised and those which also are easily personalised. Such products include baseball bats and baseball gloves. "These are products we knew people already personalised on their own and products we knew were in demand," explains Gorny. "Baseball bats have been personalised for professional players for years. Now anyone can have their own."

For the future Nike is focusing on doing customised work rather than personalised. One example is its soccer shoe, which is built from the ground up. The customer chooses the sole - whether it's outdoor or indoor - the type of air cushioning - whether it will be in the heel or the forefront or not at all - the type of leather - fake or kangaroo - the colour, laces, grommets, swoosh, and name and number, if desired.

"We're moving from the aesthetics of personalisation to the performance of customisation, which is really where Nike is rooted anyway," explains Gorny. "We're rooted in performance and in helping athletes improve their performance." The plan for extended customisation is adding a new focus to NikeID. "NikeID is not just about looks," says Gorny. "We're taking it to a new level in terms of performance."

As part of that customisation, NikeID introduced a customisable soccer shoe this April, taking Nike into the realm of performance rather than aesthetics. The shoe is the first Nike product with which a customer can alter elements of performance, rather than being able to affect only its looks. "The issues to be considered are particularly different with the soccer product because now we are dealing with pieces of shoes," says Gorny, explaining why initially there are limitations to the options made available to customers.

Nike is gradual in its approach to offering customised products and is handling issues of inventory one step at a time. "It's more effort but it's worth it," says Gorny. "That's why we started out slowly. It's a whole different procedure." Rather than offering a multitude of options, NikeID is initially keeping a limit on things to ensure that the work being done is manageable and that customer satisfaction is maintained. "When you do customisation you have to limit a little bit what you do," says Gorny. "We keep NikeID simple, make it manageable."

While is currently only serving US customers, the company is looking to expand to other countries. NikeID was launched in Japan this February, and has since sold out every day. "We keep a limit on the number that can be produced each day so that our customers are always getting their shoes in a promised amount of time, which is two to three weeks," Gorny explains. "We could take more orders, but we don't want people to have to wait." Gorny says expansion to Europe will begin by the end of the year.