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Wednesday, December 19, 2012
Bricks, bits and mortar
THE lengthy, predominantly male queues outside Apple shops on launch days suggest that, contrary to received wisdom, not all men hate shopping. Yet the impression that they do periodically prompts retailers to try and re-invent the activity to appeal to the more retail-reluctant half of the population. The latest such ploy is a high-tech clothing chain calledHointer, which opened its first branch in Seattle last month selling jeans. Hointer has no over-solicitous sales assistants, no confusing piles of clothes and no endless lines at the tills. Instead, only one of each style of jeans is displayed on the shop floor. Shoppers use a smartphone app to scan items they wish to try on, and choose a size and colour.
The app sends a message over the internet to a robotic system in the stock room. This locates a pair in the correct size and uses tensioned cables to drop it into a basket in one of the shop’s six large dressing rooms. When Babbage tried it, the whole process took less than the time to walk to the fitting room, around 30 seconds. If the jeans fit, customers can simply put them in a bag, swipe their credit card through a reader and walk out the door without ever interacting with another person.
Nadia Shouraboura, Hointer’s boss and an former vice-president at Amazon, says her aim is to make High Street clothes shopping as fast, convenient and stress-free as buying online. And because most of its jeans are tightly stored behind the scenes, Hointer can also offer a much wider range than most bricks-and-mortar shops: over 150 styles in its pilot branch. Ms Shouraboura plans to launch more shops in Seattle and San Francisco, and soon in London. She claims that a Hointer shop can offer ten times the selection of a normal store, making it particularly appealing to retailers in cities with expensive real estate. Hointer’s stripped-down, minimalist industrial design also allows her to open a store in as little as a day.
Every pair of jeans has a wireless tag that tracks its location in the shop—or alerts the store’s sole employee if someone tries to leave without paying. With robotic technology replacing human workers, Ms Shouraboura says that Hointer should soon be able to match online prices, with brand-name jeans starting from just $10. (At the moment, most of Hointer’s jeans are premium brands far beyond Babbage’s meagre clothing budget.)
While smartphone-enabled shopping is on the rise, Hointer’s high-tech operation is not immune from traditional retail woes. Holding a full selection of sizes and colours for 150 styles of jeans means that one small store is sitting on an awful lot of stock, running counter to accepted retail practice of sourcing only a little inventory and selling it as fast as possible.
Despite this, Ms Shouraboura remains upbeat. “Soon, every item in the world will be sold like this,” she says. “It will be bigger than Amazon.” In her upcoming stores, she plans to flog men’s shirts and shoes, too. Eventually, she hopes to launch a sister shop for women called Hointress. After all, some women hate shopping, too.