Virtually all of the products we use on a daily basis are mass produced. The clothes we wear, the car we drive, the phone we stare at, the laptop we type on—all identical to those used by other people. There’s always been a small market for bespoke products, one-of-a-kind products made to an individual’s specifications—but those are few and far between.
That, however, could be changing. Technologies, algorithms, and systems are advancing to allow companies to produce “personalization at scale”—creating micro-batch or individualized, bespoke products at near the same volumes as mass-produced products.
One company that’s developing a significant following in the bespoke eCommerce world is Prose. They’re a hair care company that doesn’t mass produce, or even make small batch, products—they create unique products for individuals.
“Classic manufacturers would basically have huge production lines that would produce batches of millions of products, but we cannot do that,” Prose Vice President of Finance and Operations Cyrille Deschamp told us, “We cannot have classic productions because every single product is different. The challenge was, ‘How can we build a production facility that can produce at an industrial cadence for batches of one?’”
Here’s how Prose took on that challenge of personalization-at-scale—and found success.
Prose launched in late 2017, initially as a tool to help both independent stylists and consumers find the right products. With a leadership team studded with haircare industry executives from heavyweights like of L’Oreal and Phyto, the team was poised to shake up Big Hair.
“Prose was created [in response to] mass-produced haircare systems labeling themselves as professional-grade […] being sold everywhere from Amazon to Costco, bypassing professionals,” reads a launch press release. “This problem has plagued the salon industry for decades.”
Customers take Prose’s intricate quiz, which analyzes several dozen data points about their hair, and take the results to their stylist. In case customers can’t afford $28 shampoo and a weekly blowout, Prose also provides the option to directly buy a made-to-order shampoo and conditioner to suit their hair.
Since launch, prices have dropped marginally and customers can now subscribe to and update their individual product lineup. (Which also includes a pre-shampoo mask and hair oil.)
A survey collecting a significant number of data points seems daunting, but Prose keeps it simple and easy—while it’s more involved than similar surveys from some of their competitors, it’s designed not to feel overwhelming or unnecessarily long. The survey features just one question per page, often with helpful visual aids, and only takes a few minutes to complete. Prose’s questions range from basics like hair type and scalp conditions to more specific questions about customers’ diets and styling routines. They even layer in location to combat environmental factors from climate to pollution to water hardness.
Using that data, an algorithm crunches the numbers about the customer’s current hair situation, lifestyle, environment, and hair goals and matches them with the ingredients that will work for their unique profile. Customers even get to pick the fragrance they want—or no fragrance at all.
Since each product is made-to-order, Prose had to get creative with their suppliers. They work with ingredient manufacturers to build what they call “premises” that can be quickly executed at their New York facilities. These premises are pre-mixed combinations of base ingredients that serve different functions, then additional unique ingredients are added based on customers’ individual quiz results.
As in cooking, certain ingredients go well together while others can cancel each other out, so they use these principles to fast-track production. Currently, a sudden influx of buyers would be a little overwhelming, but they have plans for “a unique machine that automates the entire production.”
“[The quiz] is the starting point of our supply chain,” says Deschamp regarding their fully integrated downstream supply chain. “Every single signal comes from that predictive algorithm. It’s really a state of the art technology that no traditional CPG industry would have.”
And there are other ways Prose has sped up its individualized manufacturing process as well. “We did enough research and development to semiautomate the production so it’s done by a chemist, but some aspects are automated to scale. For instance, the mixing is automated as well as the filling of the bottle,” Arnaud Plas, Prose’s cofounder and chief executive officer, told WWD.
Once the product leaves their facilities and goes out to the customer, Prose faces another challenge: Returns affect them more than a company selling a mass-produced product. After all, most companies can resell or refurbish their returned products; Prose, by making bespoke products tailored to each unique individual, cannot.
Prose’s first line of defense against returns is to tailor their directions to the individual, too. Their bottles don’t feature the standard “lather, rinse, repeat” or “leave in for 3-5 minutes” you’ll see on most shampoo and conditioner bottles.
“The approach is to really understand why you have these needs and how we can tackle them,” Paul Michaux, Prose’s vice president of product, told WWD, “When you get the product, we go a step further and give you your routine—what to use, how much and how many times per week you should be using … [because] if you have dry hair or oily hair, you don’t want to use your customer formula the same way.”
That being said, if customers still aren’t satisfied, they can get a full refund within 60 days—or tweak the formula and receive a new round of products, free of charge. A Business Insider reviewer took advantage of Prose’s satisfaction guarantee, got her reformulation for free, and found that the second time’s the charm.
“You’re not only buying a routine. You’re not only buying a product,” says Deschamp. “You’re buying the service of reformation.”
Personalization-at-scale and manufacturing and selling bespoke products doesn’t have to be an operational nightmare. By creating a comprehensive survey, developing an effective algorithm, using systems to handle and partially automate manufacturing, and by putting an emphasis on customer service, Prose was able to break through in the highly-competitive haircare product world and carve out its own successful niche.
If you’re selling or considering selling bespoke products, there are a number of lessons you can take away from Prose’s success as you develop your business. And even if you’re not planning to sell hyper-individualized products, much of what they do can still help you run an efficient, customer satisfaction-focused eCommerce business.
Streamline where you can
When making unique products—or, really, any products—find ways to automate wherever possible. This may require creating proprietary systems, however, as you scale up, those will pay off in the long run.
The more information, the better
For Prose, their survey serves up enough data for them to get formulas close to, if not, perfect for their individual customers. Ingredient transparency is another hallmark of Prose’s success that lets customers know exactly what they’re getting. It all leads to a better product, more informed and satisfied customers, and fewer surprises that lead to returns. As Deschamp told me, “A personalized product that is returned is not something you can sell.”
Focus on customer satisfaction
Prose combats returns and retains happy, loyal customers via a two-pronged approach. Their in-depth quiz catches many concerns upfront while their customer service team picks up the algorithm’s slack when necessary. Even though they take a loss on returns for their bespoke products, they allow them—and offer a free replacement to make sure the customer gets something that works for them.