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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Well, this time of year, if you're not reading a book on your device, you're probably using it to shop. Remember when you walked into a store to buy things? Well, all of this online shopping has made it harder for retailers to distinguish themselves, to stand out. In today's Bottom Line in Business, NPR's Kathy Lohr takes us into the world of custom design. And it's customers doing the designing. Everything from M&Ms to trench coats to high-end sneakers.

KATHY LOHR, BYLINE: Nike and Converse offer sneakers that consumers can customize, mixing colors and patterns to bring their ideas to life.

LINDSAY STEWART: See I like this design.

LOHR: Lindsay Stewart is a senior at Holy Innocents Episcopal School in Atlanta and a Converse fan.

STEWART: How you can do half of the shoe stars and other half is still simply white. You can incorporate the color you specifically want so it can easily match your outfit.

LOHR: Stewart has designed three pairs this year. One has a star pattern, another she created for the Fourth of July, and the third is a neon mix she made for a party.

STEWART: Students really love showing off and kids love showing off who they are. And because of me spreading the word about how I designed these shoes, led to all my friends wanting to design their own.

LOHR: That's what retailers are hoping for - getting customers involved and having them tell others about their experience. The only drawback may be the cost. These custom-designed shoes are about 20 to 25 percent more expensive, depending on the design.

Customization started with computers more than a decade ago. Now, you can create your own T-shirts, jeans and custom-blend cosmetics.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LOHR: And some luxury brands are getting involved. This music is on the Burberry Bespoke website, where it's hard not to be seduced by the elegant tune, close-ups of hand-sewn fabric and old world charm. Burberry allows customers to create their own trench coats but they start at more than $2,000 and no returns are allowed.

You can make your own handbags and shoes at Prada and Louis Vuitton, with limited options to preserve their high-end designer look.

ANN MARIE FIORE: It really helps build a relationship with their customers. You're always looking at building that brand loyalty.

LOHR: Ann Marie Fiore is a professor at Iowa State University. She says companies do face extra up-front costs in setting up the process. But on the other side, they don't have to store big inventories and they save on product development costs because consumers are doing that for them. Fiore says one of the biggest growth areas is food. For example, a site called Chocomize where you can create your own gourmet chocolate bars; adding fruits, nuts and even sugared rose petals.

FIORE: I can see this as being something that's really attractive and there's not so much risk, so you're not paying $425 for a pair of shoes. You're paying eight dollars for candy bar. And so, I think you're going to see that this will grow not only in the apparel field but in other fields, particularly like food.

LOHR: M&M's is already doing it. You can choose your own colors, add designs, and even have your own photo printed on the tiny candies. I ordered my own Christmas-colored mix with a snowman print. I chose expedited shipping and my package arrived two days later.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUSTLING PAPER)

LOHR: There's a silver padded envelope and inside are my M&M's.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUSTLING PAPER AND POURED CANDY)

LOHR: They're exactly what I ordered. But the cost is four times higher than if I'd bought traditional M&M's at a retail store. And shipping is extra too.

Dan Michael with Mars Retail Group, which makes M&M's, says it took about three years to develop its customization process. He says the company gets about half a million orders a year. Weddings and birthdays are their biggest draw. He says it's about the experience.

DAN MICHAEL: The candy certainly serves as I guess I'd say a blank canvas for our customers to create, you know, their perfect expression.

LOHR: Back at Holy Innocents High School, Jon Ledbetter says personalizing clothes and shoes is fun for him and for lots of young people. He plays basketball and has designed about a dozen pairs of Nike ID sneakers. One features the school's crimson and gold colors.

JON LEDBETTER: People are, like, where did you get those from, where did you get those from? Like, I made them so you can't get them anywhere else.

(LAUGHTER)

LEDBETTER: They're mine. They're my creation. And I mean, it's just fun. It's a fun thing to do.

LOHR: Ledbetter can post the shoes he made on Nike's website and others can comment or even order his design. Two German professors have documented some 500 international mass customization sites and the number is growing.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta.

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