In the entryway of Pioneer Square’s newest clothing boutique, an unassuming black table is able to sense what’s sitting on top of it.
From a messy pile of clothes heaped there, it can pick out a pink blouse, yellow dress and blue jumpsuit – complete with the designer and the price tag.
The seemingly nondescript centerpiece of the boutique, Armoire, has sensors tucked inside that hook up with a small tag sewn into each item of clothing, connecting back to a digital database that tracks each item when it leaves the store and when it comes back.
It’s a high-tech way to keep track of inventory and hopefully make shopping less of a hassle for customers.
“The checkout experience wasn’t delightful,” said Ambika Singh, the founder of Armoire, a clothing rental company that caters to what the company calls the “boss lady,” or busy women in need of new styles without maxing out their credit cards and filling up their closets.
“We haven’t replaced the human with a robot running around the floor telling you what to do,” she said. “We replaced this unpleasant-on-both-sides experience with automation.”
Singh, Armoire’s self-appointed “chief boss lady,” launched Armoire in 2016 as a way to help women find new styles with a subscription service that let them rent and swap new pieces of clothing from a so-called “shared closet.” Since then, Armoire has opened and closed two retail stores and weathered the impacts of a virus that changed the workplace, schedules and fashion priorities.
Now, Armoire has invested in a contactless checkout experience for its new 16,000-square-foot location in Pioneer Square. The space includes Armoire’s office and a boutique for customers to shop in person and try on styles they ordered online.
The black-topped table tricked out with sensors greets customers at the store entrance, where they are prompted to sign into their account and leave their returns on top of the table to be scanned. After signing off that the table correctly identified the items, customers place them in bins underneath to be cleaned and restocked for the next shopper.
“We are built to serve the busy woman … we want to make her life just a little bit easier,” Singh said. “And digitally what that always meant for us, and what it means for us here too, is a curated set of choices. …That extension of thinking is what led us to the RFID solution.”
RFID, in industry parlance, means radio-frequency identification. The RFID tags are what the sensors use to identify the item and track its whereabouts.
Ten people from Armoire’s team of 45 employees spent the last several weeks sewing those tags into its arsenal of 75,000 pieces of clothing.
Armoire, which calls its new contactless checkout experience Armoire Go, says it isn’t connected with Amazon’s Just Walk Out technology, the system of sensors and cameras that has popularized the idea of shopping without stopping at a cash register.
Amazon’s system uses a combination of hardware and software to track what items a customer picks up – and the ones they put back on the shelf – while shopping, and automatically charges their account based on what they walk out with.
Armoire says its tech tracks the product, not the customer.
“The RFID is completely disconnected from the customer,” Singh said. “For us, it’s less about trying to extract data for ourselves, and more about how do we improve this experience?”
As companies like Amazon, Walmart and Grabango roll out their own type of contactless experiences, the market could represent a $50 billion opportunity, according to one estimate from venture firm Loup Ventures.
Armoire invested more than $5,000 in setting up its technology. Right now, it is using one table at the front of the store, but it has more to keep expanding the contactless possibilities.
For a customer, using the sensors and the tags means the system can process their returns immediately, unlocking the ability to rent even more clothes right away.
For the company, the technology can help them process and track the thousands of returns they get each day. Running a business that allows customers to rent items inherently has a 100% return rate, Singh said. In the same way, it can help Armoire keep track of the racks and racks of clothing that the dry cleaner drops off every day.
Megan Woodruff, a software engineer at Armoire who got her start at Microsoft, launched the system in about a month.
She says it’s in the “minimal viable product” state for the time being, but has already mapped out future plans to use the same system to improve other parts of the customer experience.
She hopes to put sensors in a rack in each fitting room, so when a customer hangs the pieces they’re about to try on, the sensors can identify the item and pull up pictures of how to style the clothes.
Later on, she wants to use the data Armoire has about its subscribers – the clothes they choose to rent each month – to curate options just for them, hanging on the racks when they come in to pick up an online order.
“We’re just at the edge of what this will bring us,” Singh said.