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The Name: Hointer

The Place: Not here. America. Seattle mainly.

The Story: This is a tale of a woman who opens shops to sell things, anything, because she is interested in how she can sell stuff more efficiently rather than in what she sells. But beware you need a smart-phone or you are sunk.

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Nadia Shouraboura, founder of Hointer

Curious: Nadia Shouraboura the founder is a brilliant woman. The kind of woman we can all be grateful was interested in selling skirts rather than designing weapons of mass destruction. Of Russian birth she was headhunted by Princeton University to undertake research and emerged with a PhD in Mathematics so it’s Dr Shouraboura to you.

Yes Ma’am: Anyway, anyone who runs a bricks and mortar store can start worshipping at the temple of Shouraboura right now because this is someone who doesn’t think that your days are numbered.

Huzza, so it’s not just about screens: Well, it’s about screens in bricks, if you see what I mean, the thrill of internet-enabled shopping brought to the high street. She goes further – shops have huge advantages over online concerns – no transportation costs – the customer does all that for you. Fulfilment is cheaper from a network of interconnected shops acting as mini warehouses than from one vast storage facility.

Now, hang on, perhaps she needs to work in a pure-play first to be sure of that: Listen up buddy. In 2004 Dr S started at Amazon – straight in as technology vice president of worldwide operations. Howzat. Also serving on the big Bezos’ senior leadership team that directed Amazon’s course and she only left in 2012 to set up Hointer.

Ok, Ok. But if shops are the best business model for retailers how come they’re declining in popularity with customers? One word – boring. Hointer is obsessed with the customer having fun in the stores. In a Shouraboura shop there is no rummaging to find your size, no shuffling aimlessly around with a pile of clothes trying to find the changing room, no lacklustre shop assistant saying “either of those any good?”

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Oh really. And what happens instead, pray? Obviously a robot takes the clothes to the dressing room for you and if you don’t want anything you shove it down a chute before leaving without stopping at the checkout because you have already paid automatically. It’s playful, it’s experimental, it’s 10-times faster than your usual shopping experience, it’s Hointer.

On balance, I think we’d better go through this in more detail: All Hointer shops are test beds for retail technology. They sell different things, one in Seattle only really sells jeans. Another category they have tried is toys and the company opens and closes them when experimentation is finished. Shouraboura tells us clothing is working well and electronics and jewellery are still works in progress.

Tell me about toys: Traditional toy shops are full of playthings in boxes on shelves, out of reach of the core customer – i.e. small, excited children. The current model works as follows: they point, you buy, take it home, find out it’s not what they thought, end of toy. A Hointer toy shop in contrast is a mini playground of open toys to be experimented with. As Shouraboura often points out people end up buying a lot more in the right conditions – an average customer will try on 12 clothing items because there is no effort involved on their part.

They must be big units: Not at all. Hointer stores are small (800 sq ft – 5,000 sq ft) but crucially only one of every product line is out on display – in a Hointer clothes shop for example when you have spotted the style you like, the customer merely scans the electronic tag to their phone, asking for the correct size, colour etcetera and a little oompah loompah in the back office shunts the item to the fitting room  – the customer is sent a message directing them to the right cubicle – I tell you she’s thought of everything. And at that point everything is in your online basket. If the pink velour jogging suit is definitely not for you then down a chute it goes automatically removing it from your phone order at the same time.

Phew. I imagine Dr S could sell this technology on for good money: It’s a good job you’re here isn’t it?  Obviously this is the point. Shouraboura does not intend to have 1,000 Hointer stores but wants 1,000s of shops using her technology. At present the tech is divided into categories such as the Extended Tag, the Whoosh Fitting Room, and Micro Warehouse. Retailers can buy all or any they choose. According to Hointer most retailers’ inventory management is a mess and its technology helps with that, plus smaller stores also really want to go multi-channel and Hointer can turn your one little shop into multi-channel heaven.

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It’s a whole new world to me. Who’s actually going into these shops? It’s a whole new world to everyone, dearie. As to the customers, the company thought it would be very young hipsters streaming through the doors but actually the high-end nature of some of the product categories it sells puts it out of the range of the most tech-savvy generation, so it’s an older clientele than you would expect. And of course their favourite kind of customer is the one who doesn’t need lots of staff around because there aren’t any.

What none? Well, perhaps just one to answer questions. This is where the Shopworkers Union will start getting jumpy. Wages, obviously, are expensive but a Hointer solution requires no back office workers at all – no shelf stackers, no fitting room attendants so in a mall in Seattle a 5,000 square foot outlet is run by just one solitary employee.

So this is what the future looks like: Pretty much. According to Shouraboura retailers will have to adapt, have to ship from stores, to make the shopping experience much better, and more joined-up. She had not to date found retailers paying enough attention to this hence the decision to open its own pop-ups. But now retailers come to her – they love the data that Hointer can capture on customers.

I bet there’s an app: You’re so right – which customers download when they enter the shop. Then the user will be sent suggestions for different looks, images for alternatives to try on, social media content on trends  – everything is also downloadable via the dressing room screens which means you can put down the smart-phone long enough to do up your jeans. It’s like shopping with a friend like you.

Oh, that’s nice: Only much quicker and with better opinions.

Right.

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