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Revenge of Bricks and Mortar

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"T he old way of shopping can peacefully co-exist with the new,” insists Nadia Shouraboura. “It’s about giving shoppers options.” Shouraboura, who honed her retail chops at Amazon, is CEO of Hointer, a one-of-a-kind store in Seattle that brings the technology consumers love into a traditional store.

Shouraboura arrived at this new vision of retail after studying the industry from both sides. Speaking at the NRF Annual Convention & EXPO last month, she observed that while many categories thrived online, apparel was not one of them. A video of a twirling model was fun to watch, she noted, but not a substitute for trying on clothes and engaging the sense of touch. On the other hand, online retailers could run circles around traditional merchants when it came to knowing the customer, cross-selling and up-selling; the majority of sales associates didn’t have the tools to access this information.

Inventory was a particular sticking point. Having logged 10 years at Amazon, Shouraboura could attest to how items were tracked — in a word, thoroughly. Too often that’s not the case in physical stores where inventory can be difficult to locate.

Her goal in building Hointer was to bring technology into the store and create tools that allow the store to run efficiently and at a lower cost structure — without compromising the unique aspects of store-based retail. Among the transformative technologies deployed are Hointer’s mobile app, which shoppers download as they enter, and e-Tags affixed to each product.

By simply tapping e-Tags with their app-enabled smartphone, shoppers can learn the story behind an item through video clips and product highlights. The app delivers personalized recommendations, styling tips, fit information and product reviews. Shoppers can add items to their fitting room with just one click, and items are delivered in 30 seconds via an onsite micro-warehouse. And more technology awaits inside the fitting room.

Sales associates use tablets that provide a view of who’s shopping in the store and past purchases they’ve made — information that can act as a selling aid.

Shouraboura noted that all the software used at Hointer runs in the cloud; with just one sample of each style on display, shoppers don’t feel overwhelmed by the selection or put off by clutter. Having a smaller-footprint store linked to an onsite micro-warehouse also pays loss prevention dividends; in fact, shoplifting is near nil.

Online sales surged during the most recent holiday season and predictions call for growth to continue. I’m all for it — I love the convenience of shopping online, the cache of inventory and the surfeit of product data. Still, I am blown away by the environment Shouraboura has created at Hointer. It’s truly a best-of-both-worlds approach.

Shouraboura is convinced that her take on the physical store could inspire the next big thing. I think she’s on to something.