Since at least the beginning of the year, U.S. consumers have been treated to a barrage of headlines forecasting doom and gloom for the domestic economy.
As investment banks piled up debt, the cost of fuel also began to climb rapidly, and "for sale" signs stayed stuck in front yards for months on end. Then it was food prices that were creeping up.
Despite that, the customization trend that's overtaken consumer electronics, particularly in regard to cars and computers, has continued to thrive, though there have been a few hiccups.
In 2007, the electronics industry generated $162 billion of business in the United States, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. A rising portion of that is coming from purchases of customized PCs--fancy, hulking machines or colorful, artistic portables--that are created to run and look according to the owner's exact specifications.
Companies like Falcon Northwest, Voodoo PC, Alienware, and smaller custom designers like NVS PC offer owners the chance to turn a standard piece of equipment, or an off-the-shelf product, into a unique, personalized machine. Voodoo was picked up by computing giant Hewlett-Packard and Alienware by rival Dell two years ago, demonstrating the demand for high-end custom PCs. Both have continued to roll out the expensive, customizable systems.
Despite, or perhaps because of, less-than-ideal economic conditions, the personalization trend is taking on a new meaning. There comes with uniqueness an added perceived value to gadgets that are slightly different.
Personalization "is a differentiation factor in a market where, increasingly, everything is the same," notes Stephen Baker, vice president of industry analysis for the NPD Group.
But having a laser-etched iPod, or a custom-painted laptop can generally be considered an unnecessary expense. And during lean times, usually the unnecessary are the first types of expenditures to go.
That was the experience of NVS PC, a small custom PC business in Homestead, Fla. Launched at the end of last summer by former Alienware engineer Oscar Zapata, his initial business plan involved taking orders for custom-built laptops. He'd build the hardware, then apply a customer-designed paint job. But as the economy slowed, and requests for other types of custom gadgets kept rolling in, Zapata said he decided to switch things up.
"I'd be lying if I said the economy hasn't had an impact," Zapata said. "It definitely has."
The company launched in August, but by January, he decided to broaden NVS PC's focus to take advantage of the larger PC and consumer electronics market.
"When we started seeing a dip in sales, we started to diversify a little bit more. Not only personalizing laptops, now desktops, servers, flash drives, iPods, iPhones, different consumer electronics. We've been able to pick up some slack in different areas," said Zapata.
It can cost up to $400 to get a standard 13-inch laptop painted on all sides, and more for desktops and servers.
The after-market car industry is also learning to adapt. In the automotive industry, rising gas prices have actually had a counter-intuitive effect.
Nowadays, low-mileage gas guzzlers, like SUVs aren't nearly as valuable as trade-ins as they were just six months ago. Many people who began looking for a different car can't afford one, said Peter MacGillivray, spokesman for SEMA, the Specialty Equipment Market Association. SEMA represents the American aftermarket and repair and replace portion of the auto industry. But it's actually been an opportunity for the industry, which cranked out $38.1 billion in sales last year. (While that represents a 4 percent increase in sales over the previous year, that industry's growth, like the U.S. auto industry in general, is indeed slowing.)
"Those consumers who are stuck with the vehicles they've got, they're turning to our industry to freshen them up," said MacGillivray. "They do that through buying products that enhance the styling and functionality" of their vehicles.
Adding custom wheels is the easiest, quickest, and least expensive way to make a standard-looking car appear personalized, which is why it's the most popular item SEMA companies sell. The next most-asked-for upgrades are cold-air intake systems and cat-back exhaust systems. Though those are ways of improving a car's performance, they're requested even more so now because they increase fuel economy, according to SEMA.
In-car electronics are another area that many consumers are looking to upgrade their vehicles. GPS and entertainments systems are also among the top five in requested customizations.
"Consumers are becoming increasingly unhappy with the stock electronics, the GPS systems, entertainment systems that come factory-equipped because they're almost obsolete as soon as we buy them," noted MacGillivray. After-market gadgets can be costly, but are usually the latest and greatest.
PC customizer Zapata of NVS PC says that for the most part, though, his customer base has been growing despite discouraging economic indicators. And his reasoning could apply to the car industry just as well.
"There's definitely a market" for customization, he said. "There are still people with tons of cash that want what they want."