March 21, 2013      

Retail clothing stores (even chains) are folding on a daily basis despite consumers spending more on fashion now than ever. The world clothing and textile industry (clothing, textiles, footwear and luxury goods) reached almost $2,560 trillion in 2010, but the convenience of e-commerce is taking a bigger bite out of traditional store profits each year, with online shoppers in the United States alone expected to spend $327 billion in 2016.

Still, Hointer, a startup selling men?s designer jeans in Seattle, has thrived and even developed a tech-savvy following since its launch last November. How? By carefully assessing what attracts consumers to online shopping and applying those principles in a physical store.

The store’s name was derived from the word ?hunter?, which is how CEO and founder Nadia Shouraboura describes the men who shop there. When founding Hointer, providing a highly efficient shopping experience was her goal. To that end, the former Amazon exec devised a brick and mortar store that mimics online buying in all the best ways. Utilizing a smart app for streamlined selection and robots for fetching (the Hointer equivalent of “order fulfillment”), Shouraboura’s store works smart, not hard. Technology takes the place of sales associates and single styles supplant elaborate displays.

?It is strange how little the traditional shopping experience has changed over time,? Shouraboura says. ?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??

The Hointer experience

The store seems spacious and uncluttered, with over 150 styles of jeans from 23 designers hung by wires across the ceiling for easy inspection. All have tags with QR codes attached to them. Before shopping, customers must download the Hointer app.

With the app, they can scan the QR code on any pair of jeans to initiate the shopping process. Customers are prompted with available sizes and once they select a specific pair (or pairs), the jeans are dropped into a virtual shopping cart. Clicking ?try on? will let shoppers know which dressing room to enter.

The magic behind Hointer?s in-store efficiency, however, is the German robot that runs the stock room. Based on the QR codes selected, the robot is equipped to pull the appropriate sizes and styles and deliver it to the customer?s dressing room within 30 seconds (no bulky hangers necessary).

If customers don?t like the jeans or they don?t fit, they can place them into a separate dressing room bin and they will automatically be removed from the virtual shopping cart. Shoppers 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, return it and then wait even longer for a replacement.

Hointer also allows its customers to purchase items on tablets installed at each dressing room, making the entire process from selection to sale high tech as well as highly personal.

A winning startup strategy

Shouraboura, originally from Soviet Russia, earned a PhD in mathematics from Princeton and worked for several startups before spending eight years as head of Supply Chain and Fulfillment Technologies for Amazon. Applying the cutting-edge principles of e-commerce to her brick and mortar store, Shouraboura has also hit upon a truly cost-effective startup model.

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.

Like any great online retailer, the Hointer team has continued to reimagine the shopping experience by adding tailoring of purchases with free, next-day custom alterations. A color-coded system has been introduced to help customers quickly find their category of clothes (such as big & tall, relaxed, classic, or slim fit). Real-time data and user ratings provide instant feedback on which styles are hot and which need to be pulled. Clothing tags are now NFC-enabled, so phones with NFC technology only need a simple swipe to pull up the desired style. Shirts and belts have also been added to the inventory, and magnetic clothes hangers provide a sleek and convenient way to look through the clothes on display.

Additional stores are being planned and may include locations in San Francisco, Shanghai, and Tokyo.