Reinventing Retail: Hointer, Seattle

Imagine a store with a back staff of robots, where items appear, almost magically, in the fitting room. A store where customers can pay for merchandise without interacting with a single salesperson. You can stop imagining …check out Hointer, an apparel (mostly men’s jeans) shop in Seattle. A second location is set to open by the end of April, at Stanford Mall, in Palo Alto, Calif.

Founded and headed up by Nadia Shouraboura, the former head of supply chain and fulfillment technologies for Amazon.com, Hointer is one of the most buzzed-about retail start-ups in some time. Located near Seattle’s University District, the store combines the best features of online and brick-and-mortar to reinvent the shopping experience. Shouraboura describes her concept simply as “the micro-warehouse with mobile control.”

Here’s how Hointer works: Before shopping, customers download the Hointer app. As they walk around the store, they scan the QR codes on the merchandise tags with their smartphones. As customers select an item and the proper size and color, the product is dropped into a virtual shopping cart. (All of the clothing on display is hung from the ceiling, making the item easy to scan and to examine.)

(See  photos here.)

Once the customer is finished selecting merchandise, he clicks the “try on” feature on the app and is sent to a designated fitting room. The app sends a message to the stockroom, where a robotic system (from Germany) finds the requested items and “delivers” the goods to the appropriate fitting room.The company isn’t revealing any of the details of how this process works. But it is designed to take 30 seconds or less.

Using the app, the customer can request a new size or style directly from the fitting room, with the requested merchandise delivered promptly. Passed-over merchandise is discarded into a designated bin, and it is automatically removed from the virtual shopping cart. (There are two chutes, one for items in and one for items out.)

The app allows Hointer to track everything in real-time and also lets customers rate clothing. Brands can then access that data via Hointer’s portal to find out such information as what items customers are trying on but not buying.

Shouraboura earned a PhD in mathematics from Princeton University and worked for several startups before joining Amazon, where she spent eight years. She has big plans for Hointer, which features a variety of brands, from Tommy Bahama and Ben Sherman to 7 for All Mankind and True Religion. Although the selection is weighed heavily to men’s denim, the mix has been expanded to include some accessories and a smattering of women’s items, with more on the way.

Two more Hointer pilot stores are slated to open by summer, in downtown Seattle and Las Vegas. Shouraboura is looking to share some parts of the company’s back-end system with others. In an open letter to retailers on the company’s website, she writes:

“We can now report that in the pilot store we have reduced our footprint, eliminated piles, and avoided shrinkage, but the best part is that most customers told us that they loved the experience and had fun shopping. We started to work with several exceptional retailers, using our technology to re-invent their stores."

At a time when retailers are debating on how to reinvent the in-store shopping experience, Shouraboura offers a way forward. As she writes on the company’s site: “Our retail road is also crystal clear:

1) We need a power tool in our customer’s hands to rival the convenience of the online shopping cart;

2) We need an in-store backend system to take control and reduce inventory across all stores; eliminate the darn shrinkage and easily do other fun things (like same-day shipping);

3) We need to free up our sales associates to let them spend more time advising customers and arm them with even more information than one can get online; and

4) We need to get rid of piles and clutter to allow customers to fully discover products, making online browsing hollow and pathetic in comparison.”


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