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Hointer incorporates QR codes and NFC technology to help improve the shopping experience for apparel.

Back in November, Hointer seemed like a pretty cool idea when we first checked out the robot-powered apparel startup in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood. At the time, former Amazon exec and Hointer founder Nadia Shouraboura expressed her desire to revolutionize how we shop for clothes.

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Hointer’s newest pop-up store at Pacific Place in downtown Seattle. The startup also has locations in Wallingford and Palo Alto, Calif. with plans to expand to New York and L.A.

Eight months later, Hointer is making strides towards that goal, with new pop-up stores in Seattle and Silicon Valley as well as a partnership with Google Shopping that allows for same day delivery of apparel. Meanwhile, partnerships with big retailers are in the works, and Shouraboura is dynamically altering Hointer’s pricing to compete with her former employer: Amazon.

A little background on Hointer: 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.

Before shopping, customers can download the Hointer app or ask a tablet-equipped employee to walk with them as they shop.

From there, they decide what they like. Unlike typical apparel stores that have folded clothes stacked on top of each other, Hointer’s apparel is hung up so that customers can closely inspect every detail.

At Hointer, you pick out clothes with a smartphone and they automatically end up at a designated dressing room.
At Hointer, you pick out clothes with a smartphone and they automatically end up at a designated dressing room.

When you see something you want to try on, simply scan the QR code — or place your phone next to the NFC-enabled tag, a new Hointer addition.

“You don’t scan anymore — you tap,” Shouraboura told me as I tried scanning a pair of jeans at Pacific Place. “Scanning is so last season. It’s all about tapping.”

After scanning — or now, tapping — you’ll be prompted with available sizes and once you select a specific pair, the clothes 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.

By the time you arrive at the dressing room, the clothes will already be there, believed to be delivered through an automated robotic process on the back-end.

If you don’t like the clothes, just send them back through the chute in the dressing room and they’ll automatically be taken out of your shopping cart. Once ready to buy, simply tap your phone to a pay station in the store and swipe a credit card.

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The small truck logo for size 29 of this pair of jeans means customers can get that specific pair delivered to their homes.

Since Hointer debuted its first store in Wallingford, it has expanded from solely men’s jeans to women’s clothing and opened up two pop-up stores: first in Palo Alto, Calif. and then at Pacific Place. These locations serve as a cost-efficient testing ground for Shouraboura and her small team to find out what works and what doesn’t.

Down in Palo Alto, Hointer also set up a partnership with Google Shopping to allow for same-day delivery of apparel. It’s part of Hointer’s plan to build a network of stores that also double as small warehouses to allow for same-day delivery.

Because all the apparel is tracked in the cloud by Hointer’s back-end system, the company knows exactly where each article of clothing is at all times.

So, say you’re at the Seattle store and want a size 32 of Levi’s jeans with a specific wash. The app tells you it’s not available there, but at the Stanford store instead. You’ll be able to try on a size 32 of the jeans to make sure it fits, and then order the wash style you want and get them the next day with Hointer’s overnight shipping — or perhaps on the same day via Google if the product is available in your area.

IMG_7586 copyThis inventory-sharing model allows Hointer to carry just the right amount of inventory and distribute them across its locations. They don’t need to carry ten different washes of jeans or colors of shirts at every store. As long as Hointer has one model in each size and an example of what other colors are available, customers have instant access to the entire inventory, regardless of location.

Another big addition for Hointer is dynamic pricing. For now, the company is watching one competitor and trying to beat its prices at all times. Can you guess which one?

“We’re only watching Amazon,” said Shouraboura, who spent eight years as head of Supply Chain and Fulfillment Technologies for Amazon. “We look at their prices and either match it or beat it.”

It sure helps when Amazon’s prices are all out in the open.

“I am in the spirit of friendly competition, particularly because I can see their prices and they cannot see mine,” Shouraboura said. “It’s like playing poker, except I can see their cards and they can’t see mine. It’s nice.”

Nadia Shouraboura (second from right) and some of her team at Hointer's Wallingford store.
Nadia Shouraboura (second from right) and some of her team at Hointer’s Wallingford store.

These pop-up shops have also acted as a showroom of sorts to allow other retail execs to check out how Hointer works. In fact, Shouraboura said that she’s getting tons of interest from not only small boutique shops that want the technology, but big-name brands as well.

“I’m surprised with how much traction we’ve received from large retailers,” said Shourabura, who put $5 million of her own money into the company along with $5 million from friends and family. “I thought those guys wouldn’t give a damn at all, but now I see they care a great deal. They are desperate for this kind of stuff.”

Working in the mall has helped Shouraboura see the problem with shopping today. She knows that the online shopping experience, while convenient, is somewhat limited — there’s pictures, reviews and some other multimedia aspects, but nothing really compares to trying clothes on.

But the physical apparel locations also have their own problems.

“These stores are so inefficient,” she said. “Too many people working, too big, too expensive and their inventory is a mess.”

IMG_7577 copyHointer fixes that problem by combining the best of both worlds, which also lowers overall operational costs for retailers. It also has something extremely valuable: data. The company knows every customers’ purchase habits, every scan they’ve made, how many times they requested alterations, as well as how much product is available and at which stores.

Seattle venture capitalist Michelle Goldberg is a Hointer board member and active advisor.

“Hointer is so interesting because it is the intersection of merging all retail media, offline, online and mobile, now called omnichannel,” Goldberg said. “It is about seamlessly reaching the customer wherever she is during her day in any medium she wants to interact. Hointer enables the future of retail.”

Shouraboura just recruited two former Amazon employees to join the Hointer team, which already includes three others and a small business development group. As the Palo Alto and Pacific Place stores close this winter, she is also looking at opening two more pop-up stores in Los Angeles and New York.

And while Shouraboura has plans to make the Hointer platform available to retailers around the nation, she is also experimenting with other fun ways to use technology inside brick-and-mortar shopping locations.

“The physical world is so much richer than your online world,” she said. “We’re playing with visuals and how to present clothing, how to have robots in front of the store, how to have mannequins moving around, how to let you play games have have five random jeans appear. The amount of stuff you can do is infinite.”

Editor’s Note: Shouraboura will be speaking at the GeekWire Summit this September on a panel on the future of retail. 

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