Hointer Is High-Tech, High-Feel

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Robotics and smartphone app power Amazon vet's retail start-up

A Seattle-based retail start-up with an in-store backend robotic system and a smartphone app that rivals the convenience of an online shopping cart is generating big buzz these days. Founded and headed up by Nadia Shouraboura, former head of supply chain and fulfillment technologies for Amazon.com, Hointer combines the best of online and brick-and-mortar retailing to take the hassle out of shopping.

The pilot store, in Seattle's University District, features the latest in designer jeans and has a hip vibe that befits its high-tech underpinnings. Shouraboura describes her concept as "the micro-warehouse with mobile control." At press time, a location was set to open at Stanford Mall, in Palo Alto, Calif. Two more stores are slated to open by summer, in downtown Seattle and Las Vegas.

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 via the phone app, the product is dropped into a virtual shopping cart. All of the clothing on display is hung from the ceiling, making items easy to scan and to examine.

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 Ph.D. in mathematics from Princeton University and worked for several start-ups before joining Amazon, where she spent eight years. She has big plans for Hointer, which features such brands as Ben Sherman, 7 for All Mankind and True Religion. Initially, the selection was weighed heavily to men's denim, but the mix has been expanded to include some accessories and women's items, with more on the way.

In addition to expanding Hointer to more locations, Shouraboura is also looking to share some parts of its technology with others.

"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," Shouraboura wrote in an open letter to retailers on the company's website. "We have started to work with several exceptional retailers, using our technology to reinvent their stores."

© 2014