August 14, 2012, 3:32 PM

Swirl ties online content to what’s in store

It shows products available at 220 retailers, including Macy’s, Saks and Nordstrom.

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With $6 million in backing from outside investors, Swirl launched on Monday as an e-marketplace that lets consumers recommend products to one another and shows the location of physical stores where Swirl users can buy featured items.

Like on Pinterest, the social network that lets users post images of products they like, visitors to Swirl.com or the Swirl iPhone app can find products suggested by other consumers. But Swirl is also building a system that constantly updates the availability of featured products in local stores from some 220 retailers, including Macy’s Inc., Nordstrom Inc., Saks Inc.’s Saks Fifth Avenue, Gap Inc. and J. Crew Group Inc. Its target market is female shoppers of fashionable apparel, jewelry and other merchandise. Macy’s is No. 14 in the Internet Retailer Top 500; Gap is No. 22; Nordstrom, 31; Saks, 38; and J. Crew, 56.

Clicking on an image of a “Mesh Focal Necklace,” for example, pops up information about a nearby store operated by Banana Republic, a Gap Inc. brand that offers the necklace. The information includes a “click-to-call” phone number and a map of the store’s location. When Internet Retailer clicked to make that call, a store associate confirmed that the necklace was in stock.

Himli Ozguc, the founder and CEO of Swirl Networks Inc., says most products featured on Swirl should be available in a local store but, for now, it’s best to call first to confirm. Swirl, which has a staff of about 20, uses a team of employees and software that monitors multiple online sources, including retail sites, social networks and e-mail networks, to track what retailers are selling both in stores and online.

Swirl offers a mobile app for the iPhone—which Ozguc says is the most popular smartphone among women shoppers—but plans to also build apps for tablet computers and Android mobile devices. Shoppers on the Swirl web site and mobile app can click to buy at a retailer’s e-commerce site as well as get information about in-store products.

Eventually, Swirl expects to develop direct network connections with the inventory systems of some retailers to provide automated, instant updates of in-store product availability. Ozguc adds that such network connections would require retailers to already have extensive information on in-store items, including color and size, available to feed to Swirl over an Internet connection.

Swirl also expects to eventually develop a fee or commission-based structure to charge retailers for sales generated on Swirl’s web site or app. But for now, it charges no fees or commissions and is funded by venture capital.

By requiring its users to log on through Facebook, Swirl also tailors the presentation of featured products according to the interests of users and their social contacts, Ozguc says. Eventually, he adds, Swirl plans to make a large base of information on what consumers buy from stores available to retailers.

Most retailers contacted by Internet Retailer, including Macy’s and Saks Fifth Avenue, either declined to comment on Swirl or said it was too soon to say how it might fit into their retail strategy. A spokesman for Nordstrom said the upscale department store retailer considers Swirl an affiliate partner worth testing. “Mobile commerce is a very dynamic part of retail, and in principle this seems consistent with our focus on trying new things and exploring ways to give customers more options to shop on their terms,” he says. “We’re interested to see how customers respond and where there might be benefits to us taking part.”

Ozguc is an entrepreneur who founded Maven Networks, a technology provider for distributing Internet videos, which he sold to Yahoo Inc. for $160 million. He also founded Narrative Communications, a developer of web advertising campaigns, and sold it for $100 million in 1998 to Internet cable services company @Home Network.

Swirl’s financial backers include Michael Rubin, the founder of online retailing and services company Kynetic LLC; Michael Golden, president of ShopRunner, a shipping services and loyalty program company owned by Kynetic; and venture capital firms SoftBank Capital, General Catalyst Partners and Longworth Venture Partners. Rubin is the founder and former CEO of GSI Commerce, the e-commerce technology and services company that was acquired last year by eBay Inc. Golden is also a member of Swirl’s board of directors.

Swirl recently hired as its vice president of marketing Rob Murphy, who has held similar positions at other companies including online retailer Ru La La, which is owned by Kynetic. 

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