Amazon vet’s new robot-powered apparel startup aims to revolutionize how we buy clothes

Inside Hointer’s pilot shop in the U-District. Customers can scan QR codes on jeans they like and robots will send their specific size to a designated dressing room.

By the look on his face and sound of his voice, you’d never guess that Dave Cotter just spent the last 45 minutes trying to find the perfect pair of pants.

There’s a reason why he’s happy. He didn’t have to rummage through piles and piles of pants, never had to deal with an annoying salesperson and wasted zero time waiting in line at the register.

For Cotter, this is a sense of accomplishment. And even more than that, he’s flat-out impressed with the shopping experience at Hointer, Seattle’s newest men’s clothing store that’s powered by robots and your smartphone.

“It’s a high-tech solution to the old-world problem of men who don’t like to shop,” said Cotter, the founder of SquareHub who bought three pairs of pants. “This isn’t shopping. This is focused, high-efficiency buying.”

Nadia Shouraboura is standing nearby, listening closely, smiling big. This scene in front of her is exactly why she decided to leave her comfortable job as an Amazon exec. It’s why she invested $5 million of her own money. And it’s why she thinks — no, she knows — that her innovative apparel store will revolutionize the way we buy clothes.

Members of the Hointer team from left to right: Austin Brown, Chris Harvey, CEO and founder Nadia Shouraboura, and Dan Bellia.

Shouraboura is the founder and CEO of Hointer, a store that combines technology and traditional shopping. Think of it as the high-tech, modern shopping experience: something that is as fast and efficient as buying online, but still allows you to try on and touch the clothing.

Located adjacent to Wine World in the University District, Hointer’s pilot store still in beta mode focuses on high-end jeans for now. The company plans on selling all men’s apparel with various price ranges and eventually expand into the women and teen clothing worlds as well.

The focus on men is based on the simple fact that shopping is an arduous chore for most guys. They’d rather be efficient with their shopping, and Hointer gives them that with a tech twist. These shoppers are like hunters — that’s where the name “Hointer” comes from.

“It is strange how little the traditional shopping experience changed over time,” Shouraboura said. “With all the technology innovations, we still dig through piles of clothes, search for the right size, lug stuff to fitting rooms located in the back of the store, wait in lines at checkout counters. Why?”

Here’s how Hointer works. The store is small but spacious, and the first noticeable thing are the 150 styles of jeans from 23 designers hung up all over the store by wires across the ceiling. All have tags with QR codes attached to them.

Hointer customers can scan QR codes with the Hointer app and have the requested jeans sent to a designated dressing room.

Before shopping, customers must download the Hointer app. Once done, they can walk around and decide what they like. Unlike typical apparel stores that have folded jeans stacked on top of each other, Hointer’s pants are hung up so that customers can closely inspect every detail.

When you see something you like, simply scan the QR code with the app. You’ll be prompted with available sizes and once you select a specific pair, the jeans are dropped into a virtual shopping cart. You can continue to drop other items into your shopping cart, and when you’re ready, clicking “try on” will send you to a designated dressing room.

This is the coolest part: by the time you arrive at the dressing room, the clothes will already be there. Shouraboura wouldn’t let us see who or what was doing the work behind the walls — robots or tiny elves, presumably — but nonetheless, the clothes in your shopping cart arrive in the dressing room within 30 seconds.

If you don’t like the jeans or they don’t fit, simply throw them into a bin and they will automatically be removed from your shopping cart. You can request a new size or new style directly from the dressing room as well. It’s unlike online shopping, where a customer would have to re-package an item, send it back to the retailer, then wait even longer for a replacement.

Dave Cotter (center) talks with Nadia Shouraboura (left) and Jonathan Sposato about his newest purchase.

When you’re ready to take your wallet out, simply pay on tablets installed at each dressing room. And just like that, you’re done.

“This is highly, highly efficient,” Cotter said. “You don’t know you are shopping.”

Even Shouraboura, who raised another $5 million from her family, is surprised with how well things are moving at Hointer. Originally from Soviet Russia and a self-proclaimed math-geek, Shouraboura earned a PhD in mathematics from Princeton and worked for several startups before spending the past eight years as head of Supply Chain and Fulfillment Technologies for Amazon. It was very difficult for her to leave — “I love Amazon,” she admits — but it appears she’s uncovered somewhat of a gold mine with Hointer.

“I had my share of failed startups in the past, so I was prepared to live through a long cold winter with Hointer,” she said. “But it turned out to be very different with Hointer and it is scary how well it is working.”

There are currently six employees at Hointer who spend long hours in the back of the pilot store designing, developing and researching new ways to improve the customer experience. The lean team is moving extremely fast — “We are zooming,” says Shouraboura — with plans to open more stores in Bellevue, San Francisco and possibly abroad in Tokyo and Shanghai.

Instead of shuffling through piles of clothing, apparel is hung from the ceiling and easy to examine at Hointer.

“We write code, play with robots, experiment with tensioned tubes and cables and drink lots of Red Bull,” Shouraboura said.

Hointer brings advantages for both the customer and the brands. Shoppers can either buy a pair of jeans within minutes, or discover new apparel for hours with the easy-to-use Hointer app. The design of the store requires less floorspace and fewer salespeople, which in turn allows Hointer to offer low prices and carry more stock. The app allows Hointer to track everything in the store in real-time and lets customers rate clothing. Brands can then access that data via Hointer’s portal to see which apparel people tend to try on and not buy.

I convinced super-awesome GeekWire chairman Jonathan Sposato to check out Hointer. He is by far the best-dressed member of Team GeekWire and perhaps one of the better-dressed guys in the city. You can check out his experience in the video above.

“This was really amazing because it exceeded my expecations in terms of how quickly I got the items,” Sposato said after trying out a few pairs of jeans. “It almost felt like a magical moment when I scanned the items, hit “try on”  and then had the clothes automagically appear in the dressing room.”

So, is there anything that could make the experience even better?

“If there was a beer lady,” Cotter said, “then you’d have everything.”

Ice cold drinks may have to wait for now. But the way things are going so far, snacks and refreshments in the dressing room doesn’t seem too ambitious for Shouraboura and her zooming company.

  • http://www.facebook.com/brant.williams Brant Williams

    Absolute Bad Donkey.

  • SoSayWeAll

    Let me be the first to say when they finally turn on us, all of this happened before and will happen again.

  • john adams

    $10 million invested in a 4-person retail clothing start-up next to Wine World? you have GOT to be kidding….

  • Paul_Owen

    Barrier to entry?

  • Guest

    It amazes me when someone is opening some new app centric business in the Seattle area and the Techno workers are a big part of their target market and they seem to forget that there are 25K Microsoft workers walking around with Windows phones. I would understand it in any other city where the WP presence is low, but they are starting in Seattle.

  • http://profiles.google.com/bangerlm Laura Bangerter

    I’m a woman and I want to shop like that! I hate shopping for pants.

    No link to the app from their website, and what if you don’t have a smart phone? Do they provide you a device to use when you walk in the store?

  • AlchemyCompSol

    I agree with Laura – I’m a woman, and I hate shopping. Of course, I usually buy men’s jeans anyway, so I will still shop at Hointer, but I hope they realize that they shouldn’t just target men!

  • James

    Ok so the clothes are hanging instead of folded, it looks like a meat locker, and I can fiddle with my phone to get them to put clothes in a change room for me – I will predict that this will not change the future of how people buy jeans.

    By the way, where did the $5 Million go?

  • guy from san jose

    i love this idea! now you wouldnt have to deal with rummaging though piles of jeans before you find your size, plus theres no annoying sales people! people ask where the 5M went, obviously a store like hointer costs tons, plus the salaries of the hointer staff, plus getting the vendors to sign one, etc. i think this is a great idea, and also a vision to the future of shopping for clothes as a whole.

  • http://www.facebook.com/marcusprato Marcus Prato

    Wow, is clothes shopping really that bad and broken? Isn’t it nice to put the iPhone away and grasp non-digital things for a bit, like going to a record store and flipping thru stacks of vinyl, or god forbid, a stack of jeans at a brick and mortar? I suppose version 2 will have the robots taking off our clothes and putting the jeans on for us for even greater ease of use and efficiency. Kinda reminds me of the original Nau concept that came out of Portland and then died, where you would browse clothes in the store, order, and then have them arrive at your home. Seems like there are better problems to solve out there, but I wish ‘em the best of luck regardless.

    • http://twitter.com/xaotica kimberley

      That Nau concept is actually more interesting to me. I get around by bus and bike, so if I went to a clothes store and found a sizable amount of stuff I wanted to buy, I’d have to rent a zipcar to get it all. It seems like there are a lot of people in Portland who don’t own cars. However, I’m not sure how many people could afford to buy so much stuff at Nau that they couldn’t easily carry it home. For me, clothes shopping is broken for a different reason. In men’s pants, a size 32 is generally a 32. In women’s pants, a size 10 might be a 28 or a 30 or a 32. It’s not remotely reliable even within the same brand… and that’s not even factoring in hip measurements. I can never just walk into a store and grab “my size”. It’d be enjoyable to leisurely browse a clothing store if it was optional… but for me, it’s an hours-long commitment regardless of whether I’m in the mood to linger or not, and a frustrating experience where I try on huge quantities of things that fit poorly. I shop online because I can look at the full measurements on ebay or get something custom made on etsy and it will actually fit.

  • yakov kaplan

    another gimmick for the gimmick driven generation with the i-phone in place of the head.

  • guest

    The app store (Play) shows 10-50 installs.

    After $5M invested?

    6 employees? Overhead?

    I just don’t get the business model. I love automation. But this is not a business model I understand at all. A $5K app with notification system to a $10/hour employee (not a robot) could achieve the same result – For a lot less money. Reaching cash break-even with $5M sunk into set up? Plus monthly overhead and inventory? I just don’t get it.

    • http://twitter.com/cy12 cy12

      Yeah, they’re not going to explain you their whole business model in detail, are they now…

  • guest2

    QR?

    LOL.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kleitsch Jana Pierson Kleitsch

    I have a hard time finding jeans that are long enough. If they had this for women’s fashion I can imagine saving a lot of time skipping over the jeans that would never be long enough if I had that info before hand via an app. I love seeing virtual shopping mixing with the traditional bricks and mortar. Interesting concept!

  • http://eyejot.com/users/davidg davidgeller

    Sounds like an Automat (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Automat). Looks fun, but that’s not going to keep them in business. The innovation we need are improvements in fit and sizing – not selection and preparing the changing room. I wish them well, but there seem to be lots of large, innovative retailers that could retrofit their warehousing software to create a similar model, probably pretty easily.

  • Quinne

    YES, there is a way it could be better! When I was a kid and walked into a drygoods store to buy jeans, I was actually measured so that we could start with the right size. But now if I want help at a store, the salesgirl begins with “What’s your size?” If I knew that, I would not need any help!

    And at Hointer I would still have to know my size. I don’t want to try on nine permutations of size and cut to discover what will fit me, when I could stand in a dressing room and be quickly measured using rays of light. When Hointer can deliver me the right size jean, they’ll have a customer here.

  • http://screenplayinteractive.com/ Ken Lonyai

    As a developer of interactive retail systems and a UX consultant, this article, video, and store are so easy to criticize, I’ll contain myself. Unfortunately though, Jonathan Sposato referred to “user experience”, which for this store cannot be that good. This is another case of technology for technology sake with so many flaws and issues that to imply there’s some kind of good UX is to be blinded by the gimmickry.
    There’s nothing done here (so far) that can’t be done with a much
    smaller investment in good staff members and possibly (if needed), the
    addition of RFID tagging. So many other great comments here have nailed
    it so, ’nuff said…

  • brick a brack

    and correction, all. it says $10 million was invested. $5 million of her own money PLUS $5 million from her family. what a complete waste. donate $10mm of levis to charity instead

  • http://twitter.com/funkisockmunki Tabitha Borchardt

    “If there was a beer lady,”
    Umm, do you mean a bartender? (coughcough SEXIST)

  • Aura Cook

    I am surprised by the negative reaction in some of these comments. This very smart retail. Have you ever wandered around a store picking up all your “maybes” only to have your arms over flowing when you walk into the dressing room? Have you ever shopped for jeans, not sure of your size, having to pick up 2-3 pairs in every style you’re interested in? Now imagine you just scan what you like, create your own assortment on your phone, and then when you’re ready, it will all be waiting for you.

    On the store ops side, how much time/effort/cost does it take to clean up dressing rooms and placing the product of the floors?

    One of the more innovative stores I’ve seen. I put my money on this lady, and if it’s not already there, she should quickly expand to Japan/Korea. Ever seen Tesco folks?

    Oh and $5M went to the automated pick-n-pack system in the back end that grabs your clothes for you and places them in the dressing room.

  • ADObjects

    We did the same thing for FashionWeek, to buy run-way items as an agency…..It is a great idea….Good luck to this!

  • http://twitter.com/leboeufboeuf Ronnie Somerville
  • alizardx

    cool, but doesn’t go far enough. I want to be 3d scanned and have those scans fitted against clothing so I can try on only the things that are actually likely to look and feel good on me.

  • Nick232

    This is cool, but until my body can be scanned to exact measure and then use that to get the perfect pair of jeans, I’ll stick to affordable stylish denim for under $40 at Crisp and Famous (www.CrispandFamous.com)