retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

The Seattle Times has a fascinating story that may suggest one of the directions that retailing is going - at a Seattle store called Hointer, "designer jeans hang from metal racks attached to the ceiling, their QR code tags easily accessible.

"Shoppers use smartphones to scan what they like, and a robotic system in the back delivers items to their dressing rooms, where they can then send for different sizes and colors via the Internet. To make a purchase, shoppers simply slide their credit cards through a machine and leave without ever talking to a single salesperson." More than 150 styles of men's jeans are available, and the store is designed to be a kind of bricks-and-mortar response to the e-commerce threat; people like shopping online because it is fast, efficient and doesn't have any of that annoying human interaction, but have to deal with the fact that it also does not allow them to reach out and touch, as well as try on, products. Hointer's value proposition is that you get the speed and convenience of an in-store experience, but actually can touch the product.

The Times points out that the store is owned and primarily funded by former Amazon.com executive Nadia Shouraboura, who used to oversee Amazon’s global order-fulfillment technologies, and who happens to be married to Amazon Web Services Vice President Charlie Bell. Shouraboura says her goal is to "expand to other locations and merchandise categories. She recently added a few rows of women’s jeans, as well as a small selection of men’s belts and shirts. Shouraboura said she can be price-competitive by minimizing labor and real-estate costs. An automated stockroom where most of Hointer’s jeans are stored means fewer salespeople and less space for displaying merchandise."

And, she suggests that the store is an “ugly duckling with seriously powerful technology inside," and that it reflects the kind of dramatic change that bricks-and-mortar shopping will experience in the coming decade: “With innovation of the in-store experience,” she says, “we will surpass the bar set by online retailers.”

While Amazon does not have any money invested in Hointer, the Times notes that the e-commerce pioneer is exploring options for same-day delivery and shipments to centrally located lockers rather than to homes and offices ... which means that the Hointer technology could have ramifications for the company. Or, it seems at least possible that other companies competing with Amazon - think Google and eBay - could either invest in Hointer or buy the whole thing outright.

I also understand that some folks will suggest that the Hointer approach - especially getting rid of human interaction - does not "raise the bar" on the shopping experience at all. But that strikes me as a misunderstanding of 21st century consumer priorities and how they are evolving. (This is not the answer to anything. But it could be one answer.

The Eye-Opening lesson is clear - that in the current environment, everything is in play and every business model can be assaulted.
KC's View: