Bodega is either the worst-named startup of the year, or the most devious

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If you live in a US city, you may occasionally visit your local bodega — a type of convenience store that has long resisted the pressure of franchise chains and branding. Bodegas are known as charming local small businesses frequently staffed by adorable cats, providing a variety of minor necessities at semi-reasonable prices. So naturally, there’s a startup that wants to destroy them. The company is literally called “Bodega,” and it’s either the worst-named startup of the year, or one of the greatest Silicon Valley heel gimmicks of all time.

Let’s get one thing straight: the Bodega™ “bodega” is an indoor vending machine. As Fast Company describes it, it’s a locked box designed to be placed in apartments, gyms, offices, and dormitories. It has some kind of fancy auto-payment system and uses machine learning (or maybe just “counting inventory,” who knows) to figure out the most popular items in each location and serve more of them.

This seems only tangentially in competition with real bodegas. For one thing, if you think most apartment buildings have a well-kept lobby that could fit a wide, delicate-looking wood-and-glass box, I’m not sure you’ve been within five miles of a bodega. For another, something that sells small non-perishable items sounds more like a corner drugstore than a bodega, but I guess you can’t trademark “CVS.” And finally, the killing blow: can a vending machine sell you beer at 2AM?

If Bodega™ were named “Vendr” or some similarly boring moniker, I doubt there’d be any backlash. The boxes could eat into the profits of brick-and-mortar stores in general, but only in a generic way, and often in places where they’d just be replacing other vending machines. (One of Fast Company’s use cases is a sorority house, which is probably not a huge source of bodega revenue.)

So why would two ex-Google employees, who had at least enough social intelligence to sell this to investors, pitch their business as a virtual parody of Silicon Valley rapaciousness? Why would you intentionally pitch a product as expediting gentrification and killing businesses specifically associated with people of color and immigrants? It would be bad enough if the founders really seemed poised to replace the bodega, a beloved and vital fixture of urban life. If they’re not, it’s as though someone made a sturdy boot and called it the “puppy kicking machine.”

Well, maybe this is why:

If it’s better to be hated then ignored, then Bodega™ has absolutely succeeded. An updated version of a boring product is far less worthy of press coverage and Twitter fury than the vending machine equivalent of Martin Shkreli. Meanwhile, the businesses that would buy Bodegas™ probably don’t care about tone-deaf branding, unless customers actively protest the machines. Maybe in our well-meaning desire to protect a thing we love, we’ve played right into its hands. (And yes, that last is mine.)

Then again, this is the industry that produced Juicero and JetSmarter. I might be giving Bodega™ too much credit.





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