SN Whole Health: Have It Your Way

American consumers expect a certain level of customization in the products they buy: Apps for their smartphones, or the color for their Mini Cooper.

“It's an expression of our modern times,” says trendologist Kara Nielsen with the Center for Culinary Development in San Francisco.

The made-to-order mindset is thriving in the food industry, where consumers specify ingredients or flavors for everything from tea and coffee to energy bars and ice cream.

“People visit our site when they can't find a bar that's right for them in the mass market,” said Jonathan Miller, co-founder of Element Bars, a Chicago-based company that's been making custom, mail-order energy bars since 2008.

A recent report from Forrester Research found that custom product artisans are part of an entrepreneurial business model quickly changing the face of online shopping. Forrester predicts that cyber sales will grow from $197 billion this year to $279 billion in 2015.

Many online food purveyors are finding particular success in health and wellness, providing consumers on special or restricted diets with products that can't find space in regular supermarkets.

“People who are vegan, lactose-intolerant, gluten-free or diabetic are all part of that consumer group that is interested in customizing foods from a health point of view,” said Nielsen.

Online cereal sites are ideal platforms. Custom Choice Cereal allows anyone to assemble their own gluten-free mix; MojaMix customers choose their base mix of grains or granola, dried fruits, nuts or seeds and healthy extras like raw cacao nibs.

At Element Bars, Miller notes that while some customers are put off by the 7- to 10-day delivery window, others are willing to wait for a premium product.

“There's stronger credibility for fresh, made-to-order, all-natural products,” he said. “When you're in the store, it can be anywhere from two to three months from the time a bar was manufactured to when it gets onto the shelf and is sold.”