Earlier this month, Wired published an article about Shinola’s decision to open a watch factory in the flagging city of Detroit. You may recognize the irreverent name of the company purchased from a defunct shoe polish brand known for the insult “You can’t tell $#!% from Shinola.” You may also recognize Shinola’s parent company, Bedrock Manufacturing, and the company’s owner—Tom Kartsotis, founder of Fossil. Mr. Kartsotis, who got his start scalping tickets, certainly recognizes an opportunity to succeed by establishing a disruptive business.
However, Kartsotis has been criticized in the New York Times’ Critical Shopper column as “a midprice mogul looking to go luxury under the cover of charitable business practices.” If you’re a cynic, you might easily imagine an episode of Portlandia in which Peter and Nance ask if a watch, rather than a chicken, is local.
Not only have many consumers become more educated about the origins of their purchases and more interested in the politics of these origins, but they’ve also become more social in their shopping. Social media apps and smartphones allow for instant exchanges—from the dressing room to the produce aisle to the doctor’s waiting room to the car lot. Consumers can ask family and friends to weigh in on their purchasing decisions, and they can also do on-the-spot product research and price comparisons. In other words, if a consumer can’t “tell $#!% from Shinola,” he can ask Google to do it for him.
The more educated the consumer and the more money she has to spend, the more likely she is to look for cradle-to-grave quality. A company like Shinola that provides full provenance of all parts—and promotes the authenticity and originality of their products—must have the ability to effectively and efficiently manage bill of materials (BOMs) not only to ensure quality but also to address customer issues promptly. Although Shinola doesn’t allow consumers to customize products, they might benefit from a customizable—or bespoke—PLM software system.
The adjective bespoke was first used in 1755; since its inception, the word has become associated with a handmade, one of a kind item. Today, bespoke is used a little bit more loosely to describe customized products and services in general—even those that aren’t one of a kind or handmade. Companies like Converse allow shoppers to design their own Chuck Taylor’s, giving a consumer the sense that she has created a shoe that is as unique as she is. And if a consumer can’t customize a product upon ordering, he can easily purchase add-on items to make it “his own.” For example, a new iPhone can be snapped into one of the hundreds of cases found online—many of which can be printed with original artwork or photos.
So, what’s the connection between Shinola, sneakers, PLM, and iPhone cases? Understanding customer behavior and designing both products and marketing to meet and challenge trends while accounting for the origin and quality of all components is a pretty tough task. Right now, Shinola makes their watchstraps from local leather at the Detroit factory; the watch parts are imported from international suppliers, and the watches are assembled in Detroit. Shinola’s consumers don’t (yet) customize their watches, but they are built and marketed for a custom demographic and, despite criticism, Shinola is finding traction. Adjusting their NPI journey has also helped their customers perceive the difference between Shinola and “$#!%.”
 "bespoke, adj." OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2014. Web. 7 July 2014.