What is the role of product configuration in e-commerce?

A huge challenge for the e-commerce sector is product configuration, now making it possible for online retailers to provide a richer experience for their current and prospective customers. It goes beyond visual aspects (customisation), enabling customers to select the technical characteristics of their products.

With the arrival of new technologies, production means have evolved and online retailers are now able to respond to the growing demand for product personalisation, in both B2B and B2C. Product configuration is part of a trend that aims to reduce stocks as far as possible, with a shift towards the 'make to order' model.  What are the principles and limits of this model? 



Give customers an active role in their experience

Customers are fully involved in their product's construction process. Beginning with a basic prototype, they can add one or more characteristics until they obtain a fully personalised product. The configuration experience must be simple and fun. 


Offer a preview before adding the product to the basket

The preview gives buyers a chance to see the product according to the selected characteristics. Visualisation of the personalised product increases the add-to-basket rate and reduces the product return rate. It is important that the visual rendering (colours, shapes, finishes, etc.) is as close as possible to the end product in order to avoid disappointment when it arrives. 


Suggest products personalised by other customers

In order to help customers through the process, certain configurations may be highlighted in the design tool. These configurations could, for example, be those that are most popular within a community or among other consumers. 



Providing a configuration service requires the following:

Suitable production tools  Configuration services may only be provided by retailers that have suitable production means. While it is possible to subcontract the configuration service, an effective partnership must be created between the online retailer and the subcontractor. 

Sufficient production capacity  Providing this service requires thorough knowledge of the production means available. Checking the capacity of the tool and planning production are key to ensuring effective and smooth implementation. 


Make to order

Making to order inevitably means longer delivery times. Customers must be given an estimated production time. Partial delivery is also recommended in the event that buyers order a mixture of finished products that are available in stock and configurable products that are made to order.


Keep it simple and avoid losing customers

Customers must be guided through the various configuration steps. The user journey must be smooth and ensure intuitive selection of characteristics in order to rapidly meet users' needs. Analysis of the most popular configuration options then makes it possible to prioritise and promote certain characteristics in the process. 



Product configuration offers huge potential for online retailers as it meets the following needs: 

  • To increase the attractiveness of their websites by encouraging consumers to become actively involved in their buying journey; 
  • To control production and stock management, an issue which is addressed by the 'make to order' model. 

However, the sustainability of this model, which requires significant organisational changes, has yet to be evaluated. 

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