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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.