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What the New Bodega Startup Gets So Wrong

As an operatic tenor, I am constantly traveling and am rarely in the same location for more than a month or two at a time.  I love it because it gives me the opportunity to experience different cultures and what it feels like to live in multiple cities.  Whenever I am choosing a place to rent for a performance, I always walk around the neighborhood to see what is near the apartment or house.  A corner store is a huge selling point.

The last time I rented in New York City, there was a cute convenience store just down the street from where I was renting.  Whenever I’d walk in, the man behind the register would greet me by saying, “Hi Mr. Four Shots of Espresso!”  I’d regularly purchase water, fruit, vegetables, and egg sandwiches.  Like many small stores and stands, there were always fresh flowers for sale – a great touch if you know your fiancé is coming to visit.  Visiting the store was something to which I looked forward and a reason to discard my pajamas in favor of real clothes to have a conversation with a friendly shopkeeper.  I’d also regularly ask the shopkeeper for restaurant recommendations in the area.  This is the problem with the new Bodega company – it eliminates all of this.

Started by two ex-Googlers, Bodega is a startup that installs pantry boxes in apartments, offices, dorms, and gyms by preaching convenience and automation.  The five-foot-wide pantry boxes are filled with non-perishable items and an app allows the user to “unlock” the pantry while a camera with computer vision will monitor what you take and automatically charge your credit card.  Ironically, the company logo is a cat, a reference to the social media popularity of cat memes such as the Instagram account with over a 111k following that posts photos of cats who inhabit actual brick and mortar bodegas.

While I much would prefer a “bodega dog,” I can sympathize with everyone who feels this logo is disingenuous at best and appropriative at worst.  Bodega founder Paul McDonald has been very forthcoming of his desire to eliminate physical bodegas.  He told Fast Company during their interview that his vision is that “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.”  The implication of this is shameful.  Mom and pop stores will be forced to close because they won’t be able to compete with these vending machines.  Without the ability to sell staples like water, candy, band aids, over the counter pain relievers, and deodorant, stores won’t be able to afford to also sell the perishable items.  The rise of these machines will have a great impact on the decrease of culture in neighborhoods.

Probably most importantly, the vision of this company misses the mark for consumers and is morally irresponsible.  Prior to launching my nonprofit ArtSmart, the founding team debated whether we would offer voice lessons to students over a technological medium such as skype.  We considered this because it would be less expensive and potentially more “convenient” as our mentors wouldn’t have to travel on-site if they had a conflict.  Ultimately, we decided that utilizing a technological medium to teach a lesson was a disservice to both our mentors and the students.  So much occurs in a voice lesson that can’t happen through a computer – physical presence, the ability of a teacher to correct posture and breathing by placing a hand on a student’s back, the ability to read music together by pointing to a section on the page, playing the piano without a delayed sound effect, and a tangible human connection. As we discovered in our due diligence, studies have confirmed that bonding occurs faster when you interact with someone in person.

Furthermore, a prerequisite to conducting a lesson over skype is access to a computer.  We found that most of the students ArtSmart services do not have the access that would be required to conduct a lesson over skype.  Similarly, to utilize Bodega’s new pantry box, you need a smart phone and a credit card.  Where will someone who doesn’t have a smartphone purchase items if Bodega forces corner stores to close?  Will Bodega accept food stamps?  What if someone only has cash?  So far, I haven’t read any evidence that the Bodega founders considered these questions.

Instead of forcing consumers to act solely through technology, Bodega should have considered how to use technology as a supplement to the experience as opposed to defining the experience.  Perhaps a partnership with convenience and corner stores utilizing the camera with computer vision would have been mutually inclusive rather than exclusive.  Regardless, I plan to continue to support brick and mortar bodegas whenever I can and you should too.

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