Amazon Style and the Decade that Slipped By

January 22, 2022

Back in September of 2021, we highlighted the striking similarities between Amazon's department store concept ( "leaked" to The Wall St. Journal ) and the bot-powered store design launched a decade ago by engineer-entrepreneurs Nadia Shouraboura and Caroline Shouraboura.

A few months later, GeekWire wrote about the similarities too. They were well-positioned to do so; they had covered the evolution of Hointer from its start.

Now, in a blog post published today, Amazon elaborates on their soon-to-launch physical apparel store — called Amazon Style — and the similarities are even more striking.

Here's an overview of similarities with Hointer:

  • Creative use of QR codes paired to in-store shopping app to (a) Find alternative style recommendations and reviews and (b) Tap to have items automatically delivered to fitting room.
  • Interactive screens in fitting rooms to request auto-delivery of different sizes, call for a stylist, or view related recommendations.
  • Use of single display items rather than racks and shelves of clothing. Inventory is kept off-floor and delivered directly to fitting rooms via micro-robotics.
  • Use of the above to develop stores with small footprints and labor requirements and better customer experience.
  • Touchless self-checkout (Hointer used an app, Amazon Style will use palm-based biometrics.)

To be sure, touchless checkout, use of a shopping app, or in-store QR codes alone are hardly novel. What made Hointer unique was the particular design and combination of technologies in order to significantly improve customer experience. And they got there a decade before Amazon.

Hointer opened flagship stores which served as test-beds; they had coders on the floor reacting to shoppers' feedback and altering things on the go. They were primarily a technology company, and functioned much in the same way that Ocado does or Amazon does with their cloud services: making their innovative tech available to other businesses.

Hointer was acquired by the Australian firm Wesfarmers. While some big US retailers trialed Hointer tech it's not clear that it ever caught on here.

In retrospect, it seems the Shourabouras were a decade ahead of everyone else — including Amazon. "The future is now" was Hointer's tagline.

If Amazon's deployment of this same concept takes off, it'll be a bitter pill for retailers who dithered for a decade when offered a set of technologies sold as a competitive advantage against Amazon.