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Shopping App Swirl Uses Its Back Bay HQ as a Testing Ground

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Boston is putting itself on the map as fashion-meets-tech innovation hub. From Kendall to Fort Point Channel, here are the startups that caught our attention.

We're all for simplicity—a Reed Krakoff bag, apple red polish on our nails, that mythical ten-piece wardrobe—and our iPhone screens are no exception. Therein lies the appeal of Swirl, a shopping app to guide your in-store purchases, allowing you to press that wiggly "X" and clear the clutter of individual retailers' apps. With functionalities reminiscent of Pinterest and Pandora, Swirl scopes out your favorite nearby stores, let's you "clip" to shopping lists organized however you want, and alerts you to sales on frequented stores and eyed items, all while aggregating trends to inspire your next buys.

With Boston headquarters and a slew of tech meets e-commerce talent at the helm, including some former Rue La La staffers, Swirl is poised to roll out more game-changing features in its next phase. Currently, the app serves the user need for pre-shopping research and discovery; soon, Swirl will introduce the in-store part of the equation. We spoke with VP of Marketing, Rob Murphy, about the platform's inception, how it studies the trends, and why Boston is its lab.

What propelled the founding of Swirl and why in Boston? A lot of the execs all have roots here, right?
The company was founded by Hilmi Ozguc, who is a serial entrepreneur. He has successfully started and built two other technology-based companies, Narrative Communications and Maven Networks, so this was really about him thinking of what to do next. His real interest lies in taking technology and applying it to opportunities in different industries. In this case, it was mobile technology and in-store retail—marrying those two together and building a platform to help consumers have a richer experience when shopping.

Then also, giving retailers a technology platform allowing them to engage consumers while shopping in-store. From a Boston perspective, he's from Boston and in general there are a lot of exciting startups and technology based talent building here. There is a whole ecosystem of really talented tech resources available to disrupt traditional environments.

On the tech side Boston has the talent, but how have you been wading in the fashion world, matching the retail sensibility to the tech talent?
We are starting in the fashion space but what we're building is a much larger, retailer shopping platform. We see this applying to other verticals beyond fashion; this is the starting point. With that, the real opportunity is looking for people in commerce. Boston has a few in that category: Rue La La, Karmaloop, Wayfair. People with a lot of e-commerce experience, and even those are starting to migrate to mobile.

To what degree is Boston a testing-ground for the app? Might it ever go into the local, independently owned space?
Maybe long-term, but right now we're focusing on the top 200 leading national retailers. We're headquartered right on Boylston Street and feel fortunate to be in the middle of the shopping environment in Boston (actually it's one of the reasons we picked this location). We have a built-in consumer focus group and test lab downstairs on the street. We've had conversations and have been testing this technology with local retailers. It helps to get ideas and see what consumers are doing.

You are obviously a tech company first and a retail one second. Have there been any challenges in taking on this retail component or market coming from the tech world??
Not unanticipated ones. These things take time. We're doing two things at the same time: building the technology and working with retailers to drive the adoption of the technology and the education for what it can open up to them.

How does the curation team come into the bigger Swirl picture and what do you look for from them? What criteria do they use to select what is trending?
The analogy is that it is parallel to merchandisers at a company like Rue La La, Daily Grommet, or Gemvara—sensibility about consumer tastes but thinking about it more practically than runway fashion. It's not the cutting edge, which is somewhat inaccessible and impractical; it's much more everyday fashion, but helping people understand the trends. These people obviously love shopping, but they spend a lot of time just keeping up with it on blogs, email lists, shopping themselves, spending time on fashion publishing sites but also retailer sites. By virtue of the fact that we started on the consumer front-end and we have a large audience using the app, we are watching what they are clipping and looking at—another indication of trends and interest.

Recently, the company conducted an independent study of 1000 women who shop. Here is Swirl by the numbers:

· Swirl [Official Site]