THE INC. LIFE

Bodega and the Persistent, Puzzling Tone-Deafness of Silicon Valley Startups

It’s unlikely to disrupt much of anything, but Bodega is a potent symbol of the tech industry’s worst impulses.

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BY Jeff Bercovici - 14 Sep 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

I proposed to my wife in a bodega.

This was in the Carroll Gardens neighborhood of Brooklyn, where hole-in-the-wall convenience stores, many of them owned by immigrants from Yemen, are as common as fire hydrants. This particular bodega wasn't the closest to our apartment but it was worth a detour to play the coin-operated game near the front counter. It cost a quarter to play, and you could win more quarters or small prizes like toys or rubber bracelets. You never had to play more than three or four times without winning something. It was addictive.

On the night in question, while my then-girlfriend was getting coconut water from the cold case, I discreetly placed a diamond ring in the machine's prize slot, then handed her some quarters and told her to play the game while I checked out. She won immediately, but it took her some time to realize the ring was real. (I was enjoying the moment too much to cut it short with a "Will you marry me?") Then it was another while before she stopped laughing long enough to say yes.

Apparently, when we tell our daughter this story, we will first have to explain what a bodega was. In the world she'll grow up in, that word will refer not to an urban corner store run by a person but to a self-serve cabinet filled with non-perishable goods and accessed via a mobile app. Small-b bodegas, like other physical retail stores, won't exist anymore, according to Bodega co-founder Paul McDonald. "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," he tells Fast Company.

I suppose you could find a way to propose to someone using a Bodega. But who would want to?

Bodega's launch, funded in part by personal investments from executives at Facebook, Twitter, Dropbox and Google, has elicited a remarkable degree of ire in just a few hours, for a variety of reasons. For one thing, the "centralized shopping locations" from which it borrows its name are typically small businesses that employ minorities and immigrants. They serve diverse, mixed-income neighborhoods, whereas Bodegas are meant to be placed inside membership-restricted locations like apartment buildings, gyms and college dormitories.

Indeed, the fact that Bodegas won't serve diverse customer bases is part of the business logic behind them. It's what allows them to compete with convenience stores despite carrying far less inventory, says McDonald: "Each community tends to have relatively homogenous tastes, given that they live or work in the same place."

Bodega also epitomizes one of the silliest aspects of Silicon Valley, its habit of dressing up something that already exists with an app and a bit of machine learning and presenting it as a miraculous innovation. Basically, it's a cross between a vending machine and a convenience store. McDonald actually tells Fast Company that a gym "having a Bodega stocked with power bars and protein powder might make the facility more attractive to members," as though those are things gyms don't already sell.

It's exactly because it's so depressingly incremental that I think Bodega isn't getting worth worked up over. Yes, some people who live in luxury high-rises will probably prefer to buy Advil and condoms from a machine in the lobby, given the option. Yes, that will probably cost real bodegas some business. But if you want a hot egg-and-cheese sandwich or a Sunday New York Times or a last-second bouquet of flowers, your best, closest option will still be the 24-hour place down the block.

The real significance of Bodega is what it says about an industry that continues to spit ideas like this out and expect the world to embrace them, oblivious to the changing realities of that world. As I've written, the economic anxieties created as automation remade American manufacturing will look like nothing compared with what happens when the same forces devastate the service sector. Nothing can save most of those jobs, but smart companies, wary of backlash, will follow the example of Amazon, which has been careful to tout its job-creation efforts and plans to bless a major U.S. city with a second headquarters as it moves ahead with its rollout of cashier-free stores.

Announcing We are going to exterminate the local stores you've always known and put their employees out of business, and replace them with cabinets whose contents are algorithmically curated to serve your demographic, except when we replace a product you like with one a marketer paid us to feature -- that's pretty much the definition of tone deaf, whether or not you think the underlying idea is a clever one. (Again: It isn't, especially.)

And rubbing people's noses in it by calling it "Bodega" is an unnecessary and premature end-zone spike, one the founders have already semi-apologized for. It reminds me of the 19th century California militiamen who, having massacred a population of Native Americans in Yosemite Valley led by a man named Tenaya, decided to rechristen a nearby body of water Lake Tenaya-- "not in honor of Tenaya but in joyous celebration of the destruction of his people," as writer Daniel Duane put it.

And I'd feel that way even if I hadn't got engaged in a bodega.