‘Bodega,’ the start-up that wants to kill mom-and-pop shops, is a very bad idea

The Register Citizen (Torrington, CT) - - OPINION -

The head­line seems de­signed to con­vey max­i­mum de­spi­ca­bil­ity: “Two Ex-Googlers Want To Make Bode­gas And Mom-And-Pop Cor­ner Stores Ob­so­lete.”

The story gets worse from there. Not only does a for­mer tech­nol­ogy project man­ager named, of all things, Paul Mc­Don­ald want to re­place small brick-and-mor­tar re­tail­ers with even smaller five-foot-wide boxes that look like they came out an Ikea cat­a­logue. He and his co­founder are also call­ing their ven­ture “Bodega,” and its logo is a cat (an an­i­mal seem­ingly ubiq­ui­tous in New York cor­ner stores’ aisles).

“The vi­sion here is much big­ger than the box it­self,” Mc­Don­ald said of his project. “Even­tu­ally, cen­tral­ized shop­ping lo­ca­tions won’t be nec­es­sary, be­cause there will be 100,000 Bode­gas spread out, with one al­ways 100 feet away from you.”

Cue the on­line out­rage. Bode­gas - or cor­ner stores, or min­i­marts, or what­ever you want to call them - stand for ev­ery­thing Sil­i­con Val­ley does not. Their whole point is that they’re run by in­di­vid­u­als. The charm that comes from rogue fe­lines sun­ning them­selves in their win­dows or sashay­ing down the home goods lane is all about the ab­sence of cor­po­ratism.

Rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the char­ac­ter­less are at­tempt­ing to de­stroy some­thing cen­tral to a neigh­bor­hood’s char­ac­ter. And they’re do­ing it by co-opt­ing the names and sym­bols that sum that char­ac­ter up so well. Worse still, if their project is a suc­cess they will likely put many im­mi­grants (some whose fa­thers or grand­fa­thers helped pop­u­lar­ize the term “bodega” in the first place) out of work. Might as well call the in­ven­tion a “Gen­tri­fi­ca­tion Box,” one per­son sug­gested.

All true, and all up­set­ting. But Bodega isn’t just an in­sult­ing idea. It’s also a bad one. Though com­mu­nity stores’ idio­syn­cra­sies will keep cus­tomers com­ing back, there’s more to it. The in­abil­ity of Bodega’s founders to ap­pre­ci­ate the value of the unique has led to a big­ger flaw in their busi­ness model.

“Each com­mu­nity tends to have rel­a­tively ho­moge­nous tastes, given that they live or work in the same place,” Mc­Don­ald told the site that brought his ven­ture into the Web’s wrath­ful eye. That, he thinks, will al­low Bodega to cus­tom­ize its of­fer­ings from lo­ca­tion to lo­ca­tion so res­i­dents have ex­actly what they need in one soul­less mech­a­nized con­tainer. There’s a good chance he’s wrong.

As some­one joked on Twit­ter, “They have the nerve to call this bodega and I don’t see any beef sticks, con­doms, headphones, combs or a cat!” Ex­actly. I went to my lo­cal cor­ner store this morn­ing and pur­chased sour cream and onion Pringles and a sin­gle serv­ing of grape­fruit juice. I had never done this be­fore, and I doubt it is a reg­u­lar ac­tiv­ity for any­one in my build­ing. But those chips and that drink were ex­actly what I wanted to buy, and I knew my Metro K would have them.

A box the size of a not-quite-sat­is­fac­tory pantry can­not pos­si­bly con­tain all of a com­mu­nity’s ne­ces­si­ties, be­cause, thank the Lord, we do not live in a creepy world where cit­i­zens within a cer­tain geo­graphic lo­ca­tion all have the ex­act same de­sires ev­ery sin­gle day. At the mo­ment, Mc­Don­ald’s startup also does not ap­pear to of­fer the al­co­hol and to­bacco prod­ucts cen­tral to a bodega, which could cause an ad­di­tional road­block.

In essence, Bodega has in­vented a par­tic­u­larly po­lar­iz­ing vend­ing ma­chine. Those have ex­isted since lit­er­ally the 1st cen­tury, when an Alexan­drian math­e­ma­ti­cian dis­cov­ered a way to charge peo­ple for holy wa­ter in tem­ples. To­bacco-dis­pensers ap­peared in English tav­erns in the 1600s, and in the 1880s coin­op­er­ated com­mer­cial ma­chines al­lowed peo­ple to buy prod­ucts from stamps and post­cards to Tutti-Frutti gum. When cred­it­card scan­ners made their way onto vend­ing in­ter­faces in the early 2000s, vend­ing ma­chines started sell­ing high-ticket items such as iPads and dig­i­tal cam­eras. Some ma­chines make hot dogs, and one in Sin­ga­pore even of­fers - re­ally - Lam­borgh­i­nis. None of this has stopped peo­ple from go­ing to the Ap­ple Store, the auto-deal­er­ship or even the ice-cream truck.

So if shop­pers agree with the ex­er­cised throngs on Twit­ter that Bodega the start-up should not re­place bode­gas the sto­ried neigh­bor­hood in­sti­tu­tions, they can at least take so­lace in the re­al­ity that it prob­a­bly won’t.

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