Amazon's Department Store Push Traces Nadia Shouraboura's Work

September 22, 2021

Today's Wall St. Journal featured an "exclusive" article leaking Amazon plans to trial high-tech brick-and-mortar clothing stores. The headline: "Inside Amazon’s Department Store Plans: High-Tech Dressing Rooms, Its Own Apparel Brands."

Amazon's stores could feature "QR codes," "touch screens," and "a non-traditional shopping experience" the Journal reports.

Back to the future

I felt I had been whooshed back to 9 years ago. The insider leaks seemed to be describing Hointer: a retail concept and set of technologies developed by former Amazon exec Nadia Shouraboura.

Déjà vu: This Wired article from 2013 describes Shouraboura's bot-powered store design. The inventor, pictured at center above, put $5 million of her own funds into the project.

The Hointer experience was trialed in pilot stores, including a men's store in Seattle's U district.

The insider leaks seem to be describing Hointer, a project spearheaded by former Amazon exec Nadia Shouraboura

Shoppers could use her proprietary app to capture QR codes and view matching items. Tap the app and the items were automatically sent to a high-tech dressing room. Need a different size? Tap the touch screen in the fitting room and the clothing item would instantly appear before you, thanks to micro-robotics. No running after the salesperson or going in-and-out of the dressing room to hunt down what you needed.

Tap another button and have a knowledgeable stylist come to consult with you on a different look. Or consult the app to get recommendations.

And forget the checkout line. You paid on your way out with a wave of your phone.

Hointer's beta stores functioned as testbeds and proof-of-concept. So it's not surprising that they were used to attract retailers like Macy's who wanted to deploy and test the tech in their own stores.

Shouraboura's vision evolved from apps to a wand-like device which customers could use to select merchandise to be sent to a fitting room. Users enjoyed the evocation of magic that the wand provided.

Interestingly, her model, a problem-solving fusion of the tactile and digital, would limit face-to-face interaction in today's pandemic-aware world.

The early Hointer vision was captured in this charming video that Shouraboura filmed with her engineer daughter and business partner Caroline:

Let's go back to the Wall St. Journal article, which provides details leaked by the insiders:

Once there [in the fitting room], customers could ask for more items using a touch screen, which might be capable of recommending additional clothing based on the pieces shoppers liked.

The online shopping company has made an effort to keep its clothing concept secret, giving it a code name.

I know the code name: "Shouraboura!" Or maybe "Mayday!" (That's a joke Shouraboura would appreciate.)

Seriously, the leakers aren't describing anything fundamentally different than Hointer, so they may as well have code-named the project "Shouraboura."

Bricks account for 84% of retail sales in the U.S.

There are some odd, pedestrian details included in the leak. After customers scan QR codes, "associates in the store" will "gather the items and place them in fitting rooms." Come on. Salespeople hand-carrying garments to fitting rooms has been done since when — the 1800s? Amazon's not going to do that. They'll likely copy Shouraboura's automated delivery system.

Remember that qualifier:

The plans aren’t completed and could change, they said.

You don't say!

Is Shouraboura is involved in this project? Perhaps Amazon bought her intellectual property and tech.

If not, maybe they should consider it.

  • Amazon's recommendation engine, massive customer data trove, and continual testing regimen are unique assets.
  • Meanwhile, Shouraboura has already identified, reverse-engineered, and solved some key customer pain points using a proprietary mix of mobile tech, IoT, and micro-robotics.

It'll be interesting to see what comes of Amazon's new experiments.

One thing's for sure: everything described in the article was in place a decade ago. So we'll have to wait to hear what's truly innovative about Amazon's plan.

More on Hointer and high-tech retail experiments

The retail chessboard’s about to get more interesting with Amazon’s play. Some questions and observations:

  • Hointer customers tried on far more items of clothing, according to Shouraboura, who told the Sydney Morning Herald in 2014: “Normally customers try on three to five – at Hointer on average they try on 12 because it’s very fast.” Half of what they tried on was recommended by the app and, critically, they bought "a lot more" than the average buyer in traditional stores selling similar items.
  • The Hointer approach enabled a store to operate in a small footprint with far fewer employees (and lower costs and prices) than otherwise would be possible.
  • How many retailers trialed Hointer’s tech or kept using it? What were their findings?
  • Ditching the QR-reading app — as Shouraboura did with her "magic wand" — definitely has appeal. Why be distracted with having to download an app and keep your potentially large cell or phablet in your hand while interacting with merch, especially clothing, which you'll want to touch with both hands? Old-school push-buttons, hand movements, or voice commands could also be used to select and send apparel to fitting rooms.
  • Ironically, Hointer was at one point described as conferring a potential competitive advantage over Amazon.
  • Some Amazon employees visited Shouraboura's store and mocked it, according to the founder: "When I left Amazon, I opened my own store, and every asshole from Amazon would come in to my store and make fun of me. After a year of that, I decided, ‘This is it. I am going to step up.’ And that’s what kept me going: the assholes.”
  • There have been plenty of experiments with AR, VR, and QR codes as well as touchscreens in dressing rooms. For example, when Rebecca Minkoff launched interactive mirrors, they helped contribute to a tripling of sales.
  • When omni-channel meets Amazon's customer data, in-store (and on Prime) personalization will acquire new dimensions. Think: 1:1 lookbooks, seamless recommendations that span the physical and digital, and your favorite music automatically streaming in the dressing room.
  • First-party data will likely remain a priority for bricks.
  • Amazon is now the world’s biggest advertiser, posing an additional challenge to bricks.

  • Meanwhile, some analysts see physical retail as "clearly Amazon's weakest point, despite multiple attempts by the e-commerce giant to break into this market."

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