Ex-Googlers stir up controversy with Bodega pantry concept
- Two Google veterans have developed a convenience concept called Bodega that they’ve been testing in 30 San Francisco-area locations and now want to roll out to other markets, according to Fast Company. Bodega is a five-foot-wide pantry box filled with non-perishable items that consumers typically buy on a grocery fill-in trip or find at a convenience store.
- The pantry boxes are being promoted as unmanned “stores.” Consumers unlock the box using a mobile app and grab what they need. Cameras powered with computer vision register what’s been taken while the system automatically charges the consumer’s credit card without involving any human interaction.
- The boxes and their contents are flexible enough to be placed in apartment building lobbies, college dorms, office buildings and gyms, among other places. The product assortment is tailored to community needs based on location. The intention is to use machine learning to reassess the 100 most-needed items in that area so no two boxes are the same.
Everyone covets convenience. Whether physical or digital, more concepts are rolling out these days intended to upend and disrupt conventional retail with an ultimate goal: make shopping more convenient.
Bodega has just wrapped up a 10-month pilot in several Bay Area locations. Co-founder and CEO Paul McDonald has now stated he wants to roll out 50 new Bodega locations on the West Coast. By the end of 2018, his company plans to distribute more than 1,000 units and go national. “The vision here is much bigger than the box itself,” McDonald told Fast Company. “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.”
Needless to say, this has caught the attention of not only the grocery industry but also the urban independent mom-and-pop retailers from which Bodega derives its name. After the Fast Company story broke last week, Bodega and its owners quickly became the target of a large social media backlash, not only for what many consider to be a culturally insensitive name choice, but for the article's declaration that the company wanted to put these small shops out of business.
“Real bodegas are all about human relationships within a community, having someone you know greet you and make the sandwich you like,” Frank Garcia, chairman of the New York State Coalition of Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, who represents thousands of bodega owners, told Fast Company. McDonald was quick to address the issues on a blog post, stating that “challenging the urban corner store is not and has never been our goal.”
McDonald does have a point. Corner grocers stock thousands of items, including fresh food, which Bodega pantry boxes are not equipped to handle. And the Bodega boxes feature only 100 items. Still, hundreds of thousands of these small locations scattered throughout offices, apartment buildings, college campuses and other places where consumers gather could chip away at grocery store sales one pantry box at a time. If successful, they definitely could capture some “convenience” fill-in and immediate consumption business.
The pantry-style “vending” machines seem like they could strike a chord with consumers, though questions remain as to how the pantry box model would operate on a larger scale. The specifics surrounding supply chain execution, for example, are unclear. How does distribution and restocking of goods work for 100,000 Bodegas spread out across the country? What is the plan for scaling up?
The fact that the company has gone public about its test locations and future expansion plans, and is backed by venture capitalists such as First Round Capital, Forerunner Ventures and Homebrew, speaks volumes. Bodega also has secured angel investment from executives at Facebook, Twitter, Dropbox, and Google, according to Fast Company, so the company must have some sort of plan in place.
So despite the cultural controversy, grocers should sit up and take notice. There obviously continue to be some unmet needs in “last mile” fulfillment, and Bodega is out to capitalize on them. Furthermore, if Bodega works out, McDonald told Fast Company that he hopes to partner with retailers to add more Bodega pantries where it makes sense. A Home Depot-oriented Bodega on a construction site or a Staples-style Bodega in an office building is within the realm of possibility.
“Brick-and-mortar retailers have been scrambling to try and keep up with Amazon, but we believe they have an opportunity to take a different approach,” McDonald told Fast Company. “They could bring the products to where people already are so that they can access them immediately, when they need them. This beats out any two-hour delivery — or even half-hour delivery — alternative.”
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