Marty’s grocery store sat across the street from Muessel elementary school in the 1960s, and just around the corner from my house. It was the sort of tiny, neighborhood grocery store that used to dominate neighborhoods, and moms in the neighborhood (including mine) would send their kids on errands there. It was an adventure for my eight-year-old self, being given a crisp dollar bill and sent out into the world by myself to buy a loaf of bread. Fifty years ago, mothers did this. We survived.
I still remember Marty, a middle-aged guy with red hair and mutton chops who knew every kid in the neighborhood. We would never misbehave in his store, because he knew our mothers, too. He was a co-conspirator with my friend and I one day, when at recess we discovered that between the two of us, we had five cents, which was enough to buy a Bubs Daddy bubble gum. A single nickel would buy a huge rope of the stuff, plenty for two kids to enjoy with a little left over for later.
We pooled our resources and made our escape, running across the street to Marty’s. He knew we were up to no good, but he sold us the Bubs Daddy anyway, winked at us and told us to get back to the schoolyard before we get in trouble. We did, and we sat in the corner of the schoolyard, enjoying our prize until the bell rang and it was time to go back inside. The teacher was none the wiser.
Fifty years later I still remember this little adventure. Those tiny corner grocery stores are etched into our memories, because every single one of them, in every city in America, had someone like Marty. The little bodegas still exist in a few large cities like New York or San Francisco, where they play a big role in peoples’ lives. They are more than corner grocery stores, they are part of the character of the neighborhood.
I’m pretty sure Marty never got rich selling nickel bubble gum to neighborhood kids, but his store was part of everybody’s life in the neighborhood, and our lives were richer because his store existed. The store is long gone, but those of us who grew up then still remember.
I remembered Marty after reading about a couple of ex-Googlers who recently launched a startup called Bodega. The startup, which uses artificial intelligence and predictive analytics, places self-service kiosks in heavily trafficked areas, vending the 100 most commonly sold items in each area. I can see where some venture capitalists might think this is a pretty good idea, and any retail startup today has to use some sort of smart technology. Existing grocery stores are already using it. Kroger’s “smart shelf” experiment for example, recognizes me from my smart phone app as I walk by, and directs me to items on sale it knows that I like.
The difference between Kroger’s smart shelves and the Bodega startup though, is that I can still walk into Kroger, interact with the smart shelf, and still say hello to Jeff, a high school friend who has worked there for the past twenty years, and say hello to the cashier who, like Marty so many years ago, recognizes me and knows my name. They use smart technology to direct me to products I like, and send me an occasional coupon for my favorite soda, but the personal connection is still there. The smart technology just reinforces the personal connection.
The Bodega startup has none of that, and the clueless ex-Googlers’ attempt to replicate the neighborhood grocery store experience fell hard before launching because of the tremendous blowback from people who feared that the few remaining bodegas in America would be replaced by impersonal kiosks, where nobody named Marty would ever know what kind of bubble gum the neighborhood kids liked ever again.
Having a pocketful of venture capital money and plenty of insider connections, the former Googlers were ready to launch, but there was a big disconnect that those Silicon Valley insiders suffered from. In the real world, people still want a personal connection where they shop. People rose up quickly with negative feedback, afraid that the startup would close down the thousands of small shops, many of them immigrant-owned and with deep, personal connections to their neighborhoods. The question also arose about the name, which many in the Hispanic community felt was culturally insensitive and disrespectful, especially since the startup is directly competing against mom-and-pop bodegas, while calling themselves “Bodega,” when in fact it’s not a bodega at all, it’s really nothing more than a big, smart vending machine which uses the same Spanish term used to describe the small family shops they want to compete against.
Besides having more venture capital money than common sense, the founders made two critical mistakes: One was in their branding, with a name that was both culturally-insensitive and not well thought out. They even incorporated a cat logo, which is often associated with the real thing, taking their appropriation a step too far for most consumers who have had the pleasure of knowing what an authentic bodega is like.
Another mistake was in leaving out our inherent desire for personalization. While other retailers are using artificial intelligence and analytics to create more personalized experiences, the Bodega concept (or as some people are referring to it as, “bro-dega”), takes that away entirely, and fans of real bodegas are having none of it.
Photo credit: Bodega