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Inside the Real-World Santa’s Workshop that is PersonalizationMall.com

Inside the PersonalizationMall.com factory.
Inside the PersonalizationMall factory. (Photo courtesy PersonalizationMall)

As Santa and his elves get down to business at the North Pole, there is another factory ramping up production a bit closer to home. In the Chicago suburb of Bolingbrook, Ill., PersonalizationMall.com‘s factory ranks have swelled from 500 to 4,000 employees and the facility is now operating 24/7 to create 150,000 items a day — each of them unique.

Santa hat being personalized.
(Photo courtesy PersonalizationMall)

This holiday season, PersonalizationMall workers will produce upwards of 2 million ornaments alongside countless other pieces of personalized holiday décor and gifts galore. It truly is a real-world Santa’s Workshop, although it didn’t reach its current scale overnight. When PersonalizationMall.com made its debut in 1998, introducing what was at the time a revolutionary new business model — the ability to order personalized products online — it was staffed by a team of five and operated just three machines. Orders were submitted by fax and payment took the form of checks in the mail.     

As the world has advanced, so has the company, which was acquired by 1-800-Flowers.com in 2020. Now the personalization magic happens at a 365,000-square-foot facility with 500 machines that customize a catalog of 40,000 SKUs.

While the holiday season is big for every retailer, the jump in orders that PersonalizationMall.com sees at the end of every year is so significant that it drives the company’s year-round operating strategy, including:

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  • Constant innovation in manufacturing technology to allow for the personalization of a vast range of products at scale;
  • The use of automation throughout the production process that cuts down on errors and makes it easy to bring in a large seasonal workforce;
  • Efficiencies that make it possible to deliver one-off products at off-the-shelf speeds;
  • An in-house design team developing products that are not only on-trend but also flexible enough to work across seasons, occasions and individual customer preferences;
  • New tests with generative AI to help customers get their gift just right; and
  • Synergies with parent company 1-800-Flowers that have enabled continued growth.
Ornaments being personalized.
Ornaments being personalized. (Photo courtesy PersonalizationMall)

“November and December typically end up being 3X to 4X the volume of all our other months, so our business is very highly concentrated in that period,” said Jeff Chun, the company’s VP of Marketing, who has been with PersonalizationMall for 20 of its 25 years in business. “Whenever we’re developing a new personalization technology, we need to be able to handle March and April, where we’ll see good volume of course, but we always have our eye on [that huge uptick of] customers in November and December — that’s what we’re optimizing toward.”

Despite all the changes in the past 25 years, one thing that has remained the same is consumers’ appetite for personalized products: “People are hungry to connect with each other in meaningful ways,” explained Chun in an interview with Retail TouchPoints. “Everyone wants a gift that will impress the recipient, and personalization is a great way to communicate a heartfelt message, no matter what that relationship is. It’s a lasting keepsake.”

Here’s a peek behind the curtain at how PersonalizationMall delivers 10 million unique items to customers every year — many of them right now, during the holiday rush.

Personalization at Scale

Technological innovation is a large part of how PersonalizationMall has delivered on its name over the past 25 years. “Our ideal is to give the customer as much flexibility and personalization as possible so that they’re limited by their creativity, not by what we can technically accomplish,” said Chun. “So we’re always trying to push the envelope and find new ways of doing it in an efficient way for them.”

A coffee mug hot off the personalization presses.
A coffee mug hot off the personalization presses. (Photo courtesy PersonalizationMall)

The efficiency side of that equation is a big one for the company. For example, Chun said that when the company first started doing coffee mug personalization it was done “one at a time. You slid a mug into the heat press, held it for 30 seconds and then you pulled it out.” But that was much too slow, so the company developed a special “mug oven” that moves mugs through the heat press on a conveyor belt. The technology developed to the point that the manufacturer making the custom ovens for PersonalizationMall began referring to the machine as the “largest mug oven in the world” (although presumably competition for the title was scant.)

“It’s about always taking that next step, but also making sure we’re maintaining quality throughout, because people have pretty high standards when they give a gift, and they want consistency over time,” said Chun. “For example, if you give a blue picture frame for [the arrival of a] baby boy, and then a couple years later there’s another child, the family wants those blues to be the same even years later.”

This level of consistency and efficiency across such a vast range of products is enabled by an ever-increasing amount of automation, as well as a flexible supply of blank products that be customized in hundreds of ways. And while personalization might seem like an added challenge for a retailer, PersonalizationMall’s model has actually enabled it to avoid the inventory problems that other retailers have struggled with in recent years, because “we’re not stuck with a ton of seasonal inventory. That white picture frame can have a holiday design, or it can have a birthday design,” noted Chun.

Grinch costume being personalized
(Photo courtesy PersonalizationMall)

The personalization process also has become highly automated over the years, from initial order to production. When a customer places an order they are shown a preview of what the product will look like. That same preview image is then used throughout production to ensure that the product is made to a customer’s specifications. In fact, workers in the PersonalizationMall warehouse don’t typically have to re-enter any personalization manually, which helps cut down on errors — and also makes it easier to train the thousands of seasonal employees brought in every year.

“There’s really nothing that is done truly by hand anymore,” said Chun. “Some processes are more complex or have more steps. For example, laser engraving is extremely fast and automated, but sandblasting, which is another type of engraving, requires more steps. So there are areas that are more efficient from a production perspective, but everything is designed to be operated at scale [even though] every order is a one-off.

Those efficiencies of scale also allow PersonalizationMall to deliver one-off products at almost the same speeds as regular “stock” retailers, as Chun refers to them. “Being in the gifting space, we know there’s a lot of procrastinators out there — it’s unavoidable,” he said. “If we’re going to be competitive in the space, we need to be able to ship up to the very last minute, so we’ve designed our production capabilities to support that, to the point where year-round we’re shipping with a one- to two-day turnaround time. It’s almost as quick as someone who’s just picking something off the shelf.”

Staying Ahead of the Competition

Innovation has always been, and remains, crucial to PersonalizationMall’s success, especially as the business becomes more crowded with competitors.

“We view ourselves as innovators and [as such we] have driven a lot of technological advancement,” said Chun. “There are definitely product lines over the years where we were one of the first to market, and then other people start emulating us. But everything we do is exclusive to us from a design perspective. We have an in-house team of fantastic designers that are always researching the latest trends and coming up with designs that are fresh and relevant. That’s where we set ourselves apart. Yes, there are some other photo players out there and there are some print-on-demand players, but our sweet spot is the unique and easy-to-personalize designs that are really memorable. Those are things that you are not going to find with any of our competitors.”

Among the categories where PersonalizationMall has led the customization charge are custom canvas prints, fleece blankets and garden gnomes. Yes, you read that right — one of the recent trends the PersonalizationMall design team jumped on is gnome-themed products.

Repeating name designs are currently all the rage in personalization, according to Chun.
Repeating name designs are currently all the rage in personalization, according to Chun. (Photo courtesy PersonalizationMall)

That particular innovation illustrates the versatility of the company’s business model, and also the fact that while personalized products have become more accessible, even commonplace in recent years, they are not commoditized, said Chun. “We never want to be in a situation where we’re offering the same things as everyone else,” said Chun. “Each season we’re going to find new products that resonate with our customers, so we’re always bringing new stuff to market.”

The synergies that the new parent company, 1-800-Flowers, brings into the mix also help in that regard. “There are a lot of people, myself included, who’ve been [at PersonalizationMall] for a long time, and there’s a lot of value in that,” said Chun. “But there’s also value in having people with other perspectives that have tested other types of campaigns and run different websites. It’s been really helpful in driving some of our strategic changes, especially in marketing.”

These include moving from largely direct-response marketing into more upper-funnel campaigns, as well as expanding the company’s social media presence. And the proof is in the pudding: Chun said that since PersonalizationMall was acquired, revenue has grown 30% (as of its last fiscal year).

Looking ahead, PersonalizationMall is increasingly bringing AI into the mix, most recently in its messaging tool, which helps customer craft gift messaging for certain products based on a few details about the recipient and occasion.

The holiday season is already well underway at PersonalizationMall, which began introducing its first promotions in September, and so far, Chun said things are looking to be on par with years past.

“One thing we’ve really focused on over the last few years is the fact that personalization is a good value, and that’s helpful for people when they’re facing so many other challenges,” said Chun. “You don’t necessarily have to spend a lot to say a lot.”

If you’re still eager to see more, here’s a video from inside the Bolingbrook factory:

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