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Wednesday, March 20, 2013 - Page updated at 11:30 a.m.

Men, let robot find your size at jeans store run by former Amazon exec

By Amy Martinez
Seattle Times business reporter

At a small store in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood, designer jeans hang from metal racks attached to the ceiling, their QR code tags easily accessible.

Shoppers use smartphones to scan what they like, and a robotic system in the back delivers items to their dressing rooms, where they can then send for different sizes and colors via the Internet.

To make a purchase, shoppers simply slide their credit cards through a machine and leave without ever talking to a single salesperson.

Hointer, a new venture by former Amazon.com executive Nadia Shouraboura, relies on robotics and a smartphone app to sell more than 150 styles of men’s jeans.

If she has her way, the store will be only the beginning of something much bigger and might even help bricks-and-mortar businesses fight back against Internet rivals.

“The whole idea behind Hointer is to combine the ability to try on items with the very fast and efficient model of online shopping,” Shouraboura said.

“There’s a lot of hassle and wasted time associated with shopping, and it’s just not fun,” she said. “But if it’s easy and convenient, it can be fun.”

Hointer — a made-up word derived from “hunter” — promotes itself as the rare store that eliminates the need to sift through piles of clothes or wait to find a salesperson.

Like Amazon, it caters to shoppers who want to make smart purchases quickly and then move on.

“You have to remember that she comes from Amazon,” said Sandeep Krishnamurthy, director of the University of Washington-Bothell School of Business.

“What she’s trying to do is create a ‘purposive’ shopping experience. If you have clear goals as a shopper, this is really going to work out for you, but not everything is going to go this way,” he said. “Some shoppers like to browse a lot.”

“Fully utilitarian”

Hointer’s “beta” store, located next to Wine World off Interstate 5 near the University District, is a work in progress. Dressing rooms are made of lightweight material for easy assembly and constant experimentation.

“We’re rolling out software three times a day,” Shouraboura said. “There isn’t a day that goes by when we’re not doing something interesting.”

Jason Stoffer, a partner at Seattle venture-capital firm Maveron, said Hointer is ideal for retail-reluctant men in search of fit-dependent products, such as jeans.

“Hointer gives men what they want. We don’t want a social shopping experience,” he said. “We want to go into a store and have it be fully utilitarian.”

Shouraboura, who left a big job overseeing Amazon’s global order-fulfillment technologies, put in $5 million of her own money and raised an additional $5 million from family to get Hointer up and running last fall.

To make it worth the investment, she’ll have to achieve her goal of expanding to other locations and merchandise categories. She recently added a few rows of women’s jeans, as well as a small selection of men’s belts and shirts.

Shouraboura said she can be price-competitive by minimizing labor and real-estate costs. An automated stockroom where most of Hointer’s jeans are stored means fewer salespeople and less space for displaying merchandise.

“We have a choice,” she said. “Either create a better-than-online experience, which I believe we’ll do, or lose all our customers to online.”

Eric Best, chief executive of e-commerce marketing software firm Mercent, said Hointer presents a new opportunity to drive in-store sales.

“You basically put representative product on the floor, but not the entire inventory, and that changes the psychology of shopping,” he said.

“Shoppers are not seeing piles and piles of product on shelves, which makes them less likely to think there’s an opportunity to wait until the items go on sale.”

Shopping evolves

Indeed, Shouraboura has begun pitching Hointer’s back-end systems to other stores.

Shoppers download the store’s app, then scan the styles of jeans they’d like to try on and tap a button to select their sizes. The app sends a message to the stockroom, where a robotic system finds the requested items and delivers them to one of six dressing rooms.

The whole process, which Shouraboura keeps tightly under wraps, is designed to take 30 seconds or less. If shoppers like something enough to buy it, they drop the jeans into a bag, return unwanted merchandise through a chute, and proceed to self-checkout.

Shouraboura said she’s talking with several “very, very large” retailers about licensing deals, but gave no details.

In an open letter to retailers on Hointer’s website, she describes the test store as an “ugly duckling with seriously powerful technology inside.”

She wrote that, over the next decade, in-store shopping will experience dramatic change, just as e-commerce did over the past decade. “With innovation of the in-store experience,” she said, “we will surpass the bar set by online retailers.”

Shouraboura, in calling on retailers to bring their stores into the 21st century, aims to make online browsing “hollow and pathetic” by comparison.

Clearly she’s unafraid to take on her former employer, but what about an Amazon-Hointer collaboration? It’s an obvious question, given Shouraboura’s background. Not only did she work eight years at Amazon, but she also is married to Amazon Web Services Vice President Charlie Bell.

At the same time, Amazon’s ongoing experiments with same-day delivery and shipments to lockers at 7-Eleven stores signify an interest in crossing over to the bricks-and-mortar world.

Shouraboura, who’s contractually sworn to secrecy about her tenure at Amazon, said the e-tailer has no financial stake in her company. She suggested a Google partnership is more likely, noting that Google recently invited her to its Silicon Valley headquarters to discuss Hointer. An Amazon spokesman did not return an email or phone call seeking comment.

“Amazon is very much an online retailer,” she said. “I love Amazon. I shop for everything on Amazon, with the exception of apparel, jewelry and other things you need to try on.”

Still a human touch

Led by Amazon, U.S. e-commerce sales rose 16 percent last year, well above the 5 percent gain posted by the overall retail sector. E-commerce accounted for 5.2 percent of total sales in 2012, up from 4.7 percent in 2011, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Large chains, after years of ramping up online, now are turning their attention to in-store technology.

Retailers including Nordstrom, Target and Saks Fifth Avenue offer free Wi-Fi access to support mobile checkout or to help shoppers research products on their phones and tablets. Some stores have iPad kiosks so that customers can browse style guides and buy out-of-stock items online.

Matt McIlwain, managing director at Madrona Venture Group, an early Amazon investor, said Hointer takes in-store technology to a new level.

“What attracted me is that it promised a greater efficiency in making an apparel purchase, but what I actually loved was the discovery approach,” said McIlwain, who recently bought a pair of 7 For All Mankind jeans at Hointer. “The store is so clean in its layout.”

But whether Hointer represents the good or bad of mobile technology depends on your perspective.

Many will chafe at the notion that apps and robots can replace the one-on-one help salespeople provide. Not even Shouraboura would go as far as to push for a retail world devoid of human interaction.

While Hointer goes all-in on mobile technology, it also has store employees to answer questions.

The beauty of its technology, she said, is that it arms salespeople with much-needed product information and enables them to look up a customer’s purchase history, boosting their ability to make helpful recommendations. And because Hointer displays only one of each style of jeans, she said, it has no messy piles that demand their constant attention.

“There is a lot of value in what salespeople provide, and many customers still want that,” she said.

“Where they don’t provide value is folding clothes, straightening piles and lugging clothes out of the fitting room back to the sales floor,” she added. “Those are the tasks I believe no salesperson wants to do.”

Amy Martinez: 206-464-2923 or amartinez@seattletimes.com. On Twitter: @amyemartinez


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