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Design your own jeans

Levi's Original Spin aims to give customers what they really want, writes Roger Trapp
WHEN IT comes to jeans, Levi Strauss would appear to have it made. Some may claim that real cowboys prefer Wranglers, Lee may boast of the "jeans that built America", and countless designer brands swing in and out of fashion. But always there is Levi's.

Accordingly, reports that young people are turning away from this archetype casual garment could be expected to be causing some concern at the San Francisco company. Instead, though, Levi's has taken the message that today's youth see jeans as "old people's clothes" rather than the uniform of revolution in its stride.

The latest issue of Customer Service Management Journal says that Levi's, which boasts a $6.9bn (pounds 4bn) annual turnover, has been anticipating just such a reaction since early this decade. Just launched in Costa Mesa, southern California (and several other sites in the US), Levi's Original Spin is a targeted programme that enables customers - using special kiosks equipped with touch-screen technology - to design their own jeans.

The approach is not entirely new. Since September 1996, British women have been able to try out a North American system in stores which aims to obtain perfectly fitting jeans. More than 300 fit options are kept in the stores as prototypes which form the basis for more than 6,000 size combinations. An assistant helps with the measurements and style selections, with the final choice being sent by modem to the factory. Three weeks later, a customer prepared to pay about pounds 65 for the privilege collects the customised pair of jeans.

The approach now under trial differs in that, first, it was originally targeted at teenage males, but is now available for both sexes. Second, the "interface" is with a computer rather than a sales assistant - the design being developed with the aid of "photofit" pictures. Finally, having chosen between options like button and zip fly, degree of bagginess, colour and type of material, the customer is asked what Phil Dourado, editor of Customer Service Management Journal, calls the big question: "What name would you like on the leather patch at the back of your jeans?" Just to reassure parents of these young consumers, the kiosk responds to rude requests by saying: "That is not an option."

Completed orders are sent by computer link to a factory in Tennessee and the buyer pays $55 for the finished pair.

The magazine quotes Dirk De Vos, Levi's European marketing director, as explaining that while the company has done very well as a mass manufacturer, future success will depend on "customer intimacy". This term refers to the practice whereby companies attempt to learn more about their ultimate customers in order to supply them with what they want or need, rather than what the company thinks they want.

"What we learned from looking closely at our customer relationships was that we sell them a product, they leave our store and at some point they come back ... So, we realised there was more we could do; we could build tools to increase the likelihood of them coming back and continuing the relationship."

Original Spin is not a quiet experiment. The kiosks shriek at passers- by: "Get your blue jeans here ... Be one of the first to build your own unique pair of Levi jeans." But the experiment is only part of a growing trend for companies to get closer to their public. Car-makers, for example, have made various attempts at "mass-customisation".

According to two reports published in recent days, this development is likely to become more pronounced. A global study by Andersen Consulting and the Economist Intelligence Unit forecasts that, over the next five years, the world's top corporations will increasingly organise their efforts around the types of customers they serve rather than along product lines or geographic units.

A report from Bain & Co, another consultancy, for the Institute of Customer Service, goes further. It says that companies need to address a number of key business issues if they are really going to improve customer service. Among these are identifying and segmenting the value of the different service needs of their customer base, understanding the value of different segments, and linking customer service performance to their overall scorecard.

Levi's acknowledges that there are risks in going down this route since creating a better relationship with the consumer can have ramifications for the retailer. "You must be clear as manufacturers in your distinctions between what you understand by consumer intimacy and what you understand by customer intimacy," explains Mr De Vos. "In our case, the end-consumer is the kid who is going to wear the jeans; the customer is a retailer.

"Over the past 150 years we have become very intimate with our retailers, but we have lost a lot of the personal touch with consumers. That's where we hope to get better," he said.