Bodega has been labelled the most hated start-up in the US, accused of cultural misappropriation, and wanting to put beloved mom and pop stores – where many immigrants establish themselves in their new country – out of business with their convenience stores.
Founded by two former veteran Google employees Paul McDonald and Ashwath Rajan, Bodega has developed wifi-enabled pantry boxes to be installed in apartment buildings, gyms, sorority houses, etc. The five-foot wide boxes are filled with non-perishable items which can be accessed via an app. The app will allow people to unlock the box and cameras powered with computer vision will register what customers pick up and charges their credit cards. No human interaction required. The idea is to pre-empt what people might need, then use machine learning to constantly reassess the 100 most-needed items in that community.
However, a major downside should this concept take off – is putting mom and pop corner stores out of business – an aim that seems explicit in the choice of name. Bodega; a Spanish term synonymous with the tiny stores that dot urban landscapes and are commonly run by people originally from Latin America or Asia. According to food journal Eater “Declaring that you want to replace family-run, neighborhood-oriented storefront retail with computerized protein-bar transaction cubes is not really the fast track to community embrace.” Bodegas aren’t just about buying things, they are places of human interaction – woven into the urban landscape – yet this “unmanned retail” concept seeks to take the humans out.
McDonald initially told Fast Company he wasn’t concerned that appropriating the name Bodega would be insensitive, citing surveys conducted in Latin American communities on the name. However, after a social media backlash, McDonald took to the company’s blog. Rather than disrespect to traditional corner stores - or worse yet, a threat – we intended only admiration. We commit to reviewing the feedback and understanding the reactions from today. Our goal is to build a longterm, durable, thoughtful business and we want to make sure our name - among other decisions we make - reflects those values,” he wrote.
But the name is not the only headache, others criticized the offering itself, labelling the pantry boxes as nothing more than hypertech, gentrified vending machines. There are also questions about the intensely complex logistics involved in rolling out Bodegas to the masses, but this is ignored in McDonald and Rajan’s talking points – 100,000 units with 10m items including reserve items for restocking, plus new products to introduce as the low performers are cycled out. Across specialized markets and user-informed preferences, the number of that Bodega would be dealing with would quickly climb into the thousands with warehousing, distribution and restocking a complex logistical nightmare. Unmanned retail is not a completely accurate description for the Bodega concept restocking and maintaining will require significant labour and different skill sets.
Bodega has copped a lot of criticism for solving a problem that isn’t there – at least in the eyes of many consumers who value the original concept. In seeking to take people out of bodegas this start-up has missed a key part of their appeal. Ultimately, it might be the complex logistics that prove its undoing.