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Web Lets Shoppers Create One-of-a-Kind Gifts

Searching for meaning beyond a price tag, more holiday shoppers are giving custom-made gifts this year.

But adding the personal touch doesn’t mean that gift-givers have to break out the knitting needles, haul out the scrapbook supplies or fire up the oven and start baking. A host of Web sites with names like Zazzle, Blurb and TasteBook are helping people quickly create one-of-a-kind products like clothing, books and jewelry. In some cases, making a custom gift can be as easy as uploading a photo or clicking a mouse. In others, the e-commerce tools shorten what would normally have taken hours of work.

Customers love it, and the customization sites are reporting sizzling sales growth. Zazzle, CafePress and Scrapblog, a site that lets people create and print digital scrapbooks, have each reported 80 percent increases in sales this holiday season compared with last year. Orders at Spreadshirt, where people can customize shirts, bags, umbrellas and even underwear, have doubled. At Blurb, where people create their own photo or art books, sales are up 43 percent.

Meanwhile, overall e-commerce sales have grown only 4 percent this season, according to comScore, and offline retail sales have barely grown at all.

“With everyone being frugal, giving someone a custom water bottle with a picture of their dog on it is more chic and special and loved than last year’s Chanel sunglasses,” said Amy Maniatis, vice president for marketing at CafePress.

Consumer Nation Holiday Central Edition
Consumer Nation Holiday Central Edition

Carla Pokrywka Cole, who lives in Idaho Springs, Colo., went to TasteBook, a Web site that publishes personalized cookbooks, to make Christmas gifts for the 26 family members and friends on her list.

Ms. Cole’s grandmother died last year, leaving behind stacks of her recipes, including those of her own grandmother from Poland, handwritten on note cards or typed with a typewriter. Ms. Cole uploaded the recipes, along with family photos and images of the cards with her grandmother’s handwriting.

“Instead of saying, ‘Oh, I have to buy so-and-so a scarf,’ it’s something that is really specialized for that person, something you thought this person would really appreciate,” Ms. Cole said.

Some sites that sell customized items, including CafePress and Zazzle, have been around for a decade. And before that, the local copy store, photo processor or T-shirt shop could create some personalized products.

But the range and sophistication of the customizable products available now is mind-boggling. On Zazzle, for example, people can customize not only clothes and mugs, but also skateboards, shoes, postage stamps, mouse pads and pet clothes. They can even design their own Keds sneakers and incorporate images from Disney movies and the “South Park” cartoons in their designs. On CafePress, people can customize Sigg water bottles and Flip video cameras and use photos from the popular “Twilight” movies.

Blue Nile , an online jeweler, started letting people design their own pieces last year. Customers and designers send three-dimensional renderings back and forth, using computer-aided design tools, so they can see what a ring would look like if a stone were moved or a band were a different shape, for example.

Custom orders are up 20 percent this year. “Sometimes people feel, ‘Oh, it’s the Internet, you can’t do something this special and custom,’ but it’s the opposite,” said Diane Irvine, chief executive of Blue Nile. “Technology enables that.”

Easy customization of so many products is possible because technological advances on the Web and in digital printing have made it possible to create one-off items for much less money than it used to take. Zazzle, for example, spent three years developing about 50 inks that would bind to different materials, as diverse as cotton and plastic, and built on-demand printing software so that its factory in San Jose, Calif., can create and ship a personalized item in 24 hours.

“People are overcoming the idea that this is tchotchke, iron-on stuff,” said Jason Kang, vice president for marketing at Zazzle. “It’s really high quality. The folks here have spent a long time fine-tuning the chemistry, the workflow, the machinery, to really enable on-demand printing at a price point that is almost as cheap as mass retail.”

Morgan Taylor, a nanny in San Francisco, did all her holiday shopping at Zazzle. The boy she cares for received a skateboard emblazoned with the name and mascot of his school, and the girl received an Avery binder decorated with pictures of her and her friends. Ms. Taylor gave her mother postage stamps personalized with Christmas trees and the family name, and her friends will receive monogrammed stationery.

“I was able to put on my personal touch and get something they could call their own,” Ms. Taylor said.

Gift box with a left-handed thumbs-up
Gift box with a left-handed thumbs-up

In many cases, technology makes custom design easier and less expensive than it is through traditional methods.

This Christmas, Jennifer Ly of Catawba, N.C., and her sister used Scrapblog to create a 100-page, hardcover scrapbook for her mother with pictures of a trip they took to England.

On the site, she laid out her photos and decorated the pages with images of butterflies, paisley patterns and old, yellowed pieces of paper. “Real scrapbooks are messy,” she said. “Online, you can choose a background, change it 10 times, and you don’t have that mess. And this book is a very high-quality-looking item, nothing like a paper scrapbook that you would make.”

Ms. Ly plans to wrap a box of tissues along with the book because she knows it will bring her mother to tears.

“If you ask her what she wants for Christmas, she’ll say, ‘Peace on earth,’ so I give her something sentimental,” Ms. Ly said. “She wouldn’t care much for a scarf or a necklace.”

All types of companies are joining the custom-made trend. Jonathan Adler, who designs home furnishings, added a design-your-own feature on his Web site a couple of months ago. People can make pillows, rugs or bags and choose the pattern, color and fabric. The designs are sent to Peru, where the items are made by hand.

“With the recession, people don’t want to surround themselves with things that are just stuff,” Mr. Adler said. “Everything that people purchase now has to have a little bit more meaning.”

Of all the options, a company called DNA 11 offers perhaps the most personalized gift of all. It sends people a DNA collection kit to swab the inside of their cheek. For $200 to $1,000, DNA 11 analyzes the sample, takes a photo and blows it up to create a big piece of artwork that looks like colorful skyscrapers against the night sky. People can also make portraits from their fingerprints or lips.

Adrian Salamunovic, who co-founded DNA 11, has a wall-size red DNA portrait of his pet beagle in his living room. As he put it, “The trend of personalization is huge, and what’s more personal than DNA?”

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