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Consumers go online for unique, custom-made products

Updated: 2012-10-02 09:45
By Chen Limin ( China Daily)

Consumers go online for unique, custom-made products

An advertisement for in Beijing. Da Wei / China Daily 

Chinese Internet users are now used to shopping online, but people no longer only shop for something nice and cheap, they are also looking for something unique.

That's the case for Fanny Fang, a 31-year-old mother in Shanghai. One of her hobbies is to take photos of her 2-year-old son and have them printed on cups, calendars, and even cell phone cases. The products are all custom-made online.

Her favorite item so far is a 40-page photo book made for her son's birthday last year. It took her a few days to select the pictures, choose the design, and make final adjustments.

"Young people like this kind of thing, especially students and young mothers like me," she said.

She will order another personalized product after a family trip during the National Day holiday, which will probably require a large number of pictures, she added.

Online shoppers like Fang have gradually led to the creation of several e-commerce companies hoping to cash in on the demand for personalized products.

More than 10 Chinese e-commerce websites provide photo-publishing services that allow users to create personalized products, such as photo albums and cups. The websites are similar to US-based Shutterfly Inc, which went public in 2006. Inc, which runs a major Web portal in China, is one of the most widely known. As the operator of the hit game World of Warcraft, most of its revenue comes from online games. Netease also tried its luck in the custom-products business in 2007 with a service called Yinxiangpai.

The service has more than 3,000 templates that users can choose from to create personalized products.

Most of the products are made of paper, such as photo books and greetings cards. But the website has been expanding its portfolio, including items such as ceramics products, bedding products, clay figurines, and metal goods, said Zhu Qi, operations director of the website.

"Some of the personalized products, will be completely hand-made rather than manufactured on assembly lines," he said.

The services revenue growth has doubled or tripled each year, with mothers, boyfriends and girlfriends contributing the most, said Zhu.

The company's busiest period starts in the third quarter and reaches its peak in the fourth quarter, with sales boosted by holidays and festivals.

"For days like Valentine's Day, the boom comes ahead of time, as people prepare gifts for their sweethearts," Zhu said. "But for holidays that emphasize tourism, the boom comes after as people come back and order personalized products with their newly taken photos."

Demand during the National Day holiday is usually twice that seen normally, with 20,000 to 30,000 people using the service on average, Zhu added.

At, China's biggest shopping website, other online stores also provide custom-made services. A search for "custom-made" on the website found more than 2 million items, ranging from T-shirts and necklaces to car stickers.

One of the most popular custom-made products on the list is a mug that changes its image according to different temperatures. Users' photos appear on the surface of the mug when hot liquid is added.

At a Taobao shop called Dongxun, more than 150 mugs of this kind, priced between 22 and 34 yuan ($3.50 to $5.40), were sold every day last month.

Jack Ma, chairman and CEO of e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd, said earlier that personalized products will be an upcoming trend in the e-commerce sector in three to five years.

"We will go from business-to-consumer to consumer-to-business," Ma said on Sept 9 at the Netrepreneur Summit, Alibaba's annual conference for its online vendors.

Ma was referring to a way of manufacturing in which the needs of individual consumers will be met with custom-made products and services.

Out of the 538 million Web users in China, 210 million had shopped online by the end of June, according to the China Internet Network Information Center. Consumers spent 782.6 billion yuan online last year, which represented 4.32 percent of the total retail sales in the country.

China is expected to overtake the US to become the largest online shopping market by next year, according to government estimates.