Winter 2014
The Personal Touch By Haley Shapley

Whether they’re painted, printed, stitched or drawn on, products can now be personalized in more ways — and faster — than ever before. We dive into what makes this category so special.

In a culture that values individuality—a recent study in the online journal PLoS One found that American books published in the past 50 years tend to emphasize “I” before “we”— personalized products are appealing.

And thanks to technology, they’re easier than ever to make. No one knows that better than Joseph Sieber, president of InScribe, which introduced the world’s first computerized calligraphy system at the National Stationery Show back in 1986. In almost three decades, the company has seen plenty of innovation in the personalization space.

“The cost of entry has come down so low,” Sieber says. “There’s a whole array of technologies that can create great personalization.”

There’s also a whole array of products that can be personalized these days, no matter what kind of store you own.

An occasion to remember

Carin-Terrier-Dog-OrnamentpersonalizedCAMICDesigns-copyA line of hand-painted, kiln-fired Italian earthenware, the pieces from Sasha Nicholas are the kind that commemorate important events — and each has that personal touch, with a painted message from the giver on the back or bottom of the piece.

“It shows the giver thinks the recipient is unique and special in this world of mass marketing and mass production,” says Cynthia Nouri, founder and designer at Sasha Nicholas.

Nouri has always loved tableware, calligraphy and painting, and she finally merged her passions into a business about a year and a half ago. She offers custom designs for those who want it, and most of her standard designs can be personalized with monograms. The feedback so far has been overwhelmingly positive.

“People get very emotional when they purchase the product,” Nouri says. “They’ll put something on it that’s special to them and the person they’re purchasing for.” While Sasha Nicholas can drop-ship the products, they send them back to the retailer unless the purchaser specifically asks for them to be shipped elsewhere. “It is best for the retailer if it’s sent to the store,” Nouri says. “It’s another time they’re coming into the store and developing that relationship with the retailer and possibly buying other things.”

In the retailer’s hands

Fornash6-copyWhile many items must be personalized off-site—like the beautiful chargers and champagne buckets from Sasha Nicholas—some manufacturers put the power in the retailers’ hands, allowing them to turn around one-of-a-kind pieces for their customers on the same day or within a few days, which can be a big selling point for last-minute gift-givers.

One such company is Fornash, a collection of jewelry, accessories and clothing started by designer Stephanie Fornash Kennedy. With their monogram program, which focuses on jewelry, they offer to sell a machine to retailers that cuts vinyl.

“We tell them exactly how to use it, and they can monogram our collection or anything else they’d like,” says Ava Mutchler, marketing and web director. “It’s a faster turnover rate for them, they don’t pay shipping, and it gives them more flexibility with the program.” Mutchler adds that although Fornash only uses seven vinyl colors, retailers can use however many they’d like. They can also get custom Pantone colors to match any school colors in town.

Customers like being part of the design process, but to make it easier for them to envision their options, Mutchler recommends displaying all the colors that look good together. Hot items right now include their new enamel cuff and anything tortoiseshell.

“Ours is an extremely affordable option for a custom gift compared to most other monogrammed items, which is a big selling point for our buyers and consumers,” Mutchler says. “You can get monogrammed earrings for $30.”

InScribe, too, allows retailers to take mugs, wineglasses, flags and more and turn them into a personalized product in very little time. “You can walk into a retail store and walk out with a personalized iPhone case in under five minutes, but the recipient doesn’t have to know that,” Sieber says.

They’ve been in the personalization business for 28 years and understand that when someone feels disappointment because their name isn’t on the rack, it’s bad business for a retailer. “A name program without your name is worthless,” Sieber says.

InScribe provides the printer, software and product kits retailers need to create their own name program, giving them the ability to add any name under the sun that someone requests. Their Paparté gift division includes a variety of floral and geometric prints on a wide array of products, ensuring there’s something for everyone’s tastes — and once you add their name or initial, it’ll be something anyone would be happy to have.

“The bottom line is people love their name on something,” Sieber says. “It makes them smile.”

More than a name

GraphicImage5-copyWhile adding names, initials and monograms to products is probably the most popular way to approach personalization, there are other methods of speaking to people — like through their prized pooches. Niki Crowe knows that man will do almost anything in honor of his best friend, which makes her pet-centered line, Dog City & Co., a hot commodity.

The products—which are all made in Chicago and use eco-friendly inks where possible—run the gamut from pillows and iPhone covers to T-shirts and prints. Words that apply to your beloved pup come together in the shape of that breed, creating typographic art that resonates with dog owners.

“Each pet has its own personality and characteristics and traits,” Crowe says. “The ability to put together a print that expresses all of that is something that people really love and a great way for them to express their love for their pet.” Each purchase also expresses love for pets in general, as a portion of every sale is donated to an animal rescue organization.

The most popular item is the printed pillow, made of natural canvas. “It’s something they can really look at and enjoy every day,” Crowe says. “It just becomes a centerpiece of a room wherever they put it.” And bonus points: It’s machine washable. “With dogs slobbering all over them, it’s helpful to be able to throw those in the wash,” she adds.

There’s something about the South

IsabelleGraceJewelry2-copyWhile products with a personal touch do well around the country (Dog City & Co. also has a strong following in the U.K. and Australia), ask manufacturers where they do the most business and many are likely to give the same answer: the South.

That’s true for Zoubaby, a line of monogrammed rain boots and accessories that was founded in 2010 by Bridget Davis. “If you’re in the South, monogramming seems to have more appeal,” says Bob Byrne, president of Zoubaby, although the company deals with 400 retailers across the U.S.

Each retailer receives a pair of boots in each size, along with a font card and thread color card so the customer can get the right fit and decide how they want their monogram to look. The boots are then delivered within five to seven days, either back to the store or straight to the address supplied. “It’s a personalized gift for under $100, and there aren’t many such things around,” Byrne says. “It’s kind of a statement about you, and that seems to be appealing.”

It isn’t only monograms that they can put on the boots to make a statement. “We’ve also put it out there that if you’ve got a symbol or a logo or something that you’re particularly fond of, we can digitize it,” Byrne says. Sororities like to put their Greek letters on the boots, giving them unique footwear you won’t find just anywhere.

Zoubaby also carries children’s boots — and will soon offer more color options — as well as umbrellas, tote bags and tablet cases.

In a New York minute

Scout1-copyIt’s easy to see why products personalized for consumers would be appealing — but with that extra appeal comes extra work.

Alyssa Tierney, who owns Monograms off Madison on the Upper East Side of New York City, almost exclusively sells items that require some degree of personalization.

“We have to take all the details and be really diligent, and then we have to take the product to the back room, monogram it, check it, wrap it and pack it,” she says. “It’s so much more labor-intensive than a regular store, but it sells.”

For anything that’s painted, printed or stitched in-house, the turnaround time is typically two to three days. Other items that need to be personalized off-site — like a cut-out gold necklace — can take longer. “It’s a challenge,” Tierney says. “Especially in New York, people want everything in a New York minute.”

Other challenges include spending a lot of money on samples and vendors discontinuing items that you’ve devoted resources into creating displays for. For those reasons, Tierney stocks more classic products than seasonal and fashion items, which might be in today but out tomorrow. She also focuses a lot of energy on training staff, which can make or break these types of sales.

For stores that aren’t devoted wholly to personalized products, Nouri from Sasha Nicholas recommends stationing employees near these items when possible. “It’s very good to have personalized and custom-specialized products near where the staff tend to be the most, whether by the front door or where customers check out,” she says. “Often they’ll look at it and love it, but they’ll have a question about it — [if no one’s around,] they may not ask the question and move on.”

Something special

Zoubaby-iPad-Cover-Blue-copyEven with the challenges of personalization, it’s an exciting time to offer these products — advances in technology have made more options possible than ever before.

Bonnie Marcus started her stationery line, Bonnie Marcus Collection, more than a decade ago, after discovering in her role as a wedding planner that there weren’t a lot of fun and fashionable, chic and stylish designs for brides to choose.

“The technology has really helped in terms of being able to do personalized one-off products,” Marcus says. “Now people are used to having products that are representative of themselves, whether it’s invitations or a lunchbox with their name on it.”

As a manufacturer, she no longer has to keep a massive stock of cards in storage. “It’s a wonderful thing to get custom products so quickly at a reasonable price point, so it’s a win-win all around,” Marcus adds.

Although the landscape has changed since she first started doing stationery, her products have remained in demand thanks to high quality and pretty designs — which appear on not just cards now, but everything from iPhone cases to pajamas to books.

Despite the fact that personalization is easier to do than it was years ago, that doesn’t take away from the impact. “The gift aspect of personalized products is something wonderful,” Marcus says. “It’s really something special to have products personalized.”

Haley Shapley

Haley Shapley is a Seattle-based freelance writer who 
specializes in retail, travel and health topics. Learn more at

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