The headline hit Twitter like a hammer (almost as if it had been specifically calibrated to do so): “Two Ex-Googlers Want To Make Bodegas And Mom-And-Pop Corner Stores Obsolete.” The article, published by Fast Company, unfurled the tale of a pair of tech bros who spun the “Disrupt” wheel and landed on “Bodegas? ?.”
Their game changing plan? To put devices in the lobbies of buildings that will sell essentials to the people living there. Can’t you just hear the dominoes falling?
Tech Bros: “They’re machines that vend!”
VC Guy: “I’ll have a dumptruck full of money at your house in an hour.”
Website Editor: “With the right headline, this will click like crazy!”
Reader: “I have to tweet about this out-of-touch bullshit.”
Twitter was set ablaze, which was actually kinda fun to watch. After all, the two entrepreneurs behind the concept seem to be blatantly courting controversy. They’ve named the company “Bodega” and made their logo a cat, for the cats that slink through the aisles of true NYC mom and pops. Did they forget that humans are communal creatures? Anyone who’s lived in New York (or parts of LA) sees these small shops as part of the community. Naturally, we protect our own.
So we fire tweet bombs on the tech bros. Rip them in 140 characters or less. But as the dust clears, a question arises: Does the tech industry actually know how to disrupt mom and pop shops? Are they that good?
Doubtful. If Amazon couldn’t kill bodegas, it’s not likely that this new venture will. Just look at their press images: They’re selling Advil, Tums, and Tide — all things that have been in the vending machine in the laundry room of every NYC apartment building for decades. They also seem to sell a variety of juices that your yoga instructor likes and those Terra chips that JetBlue drops on your lap while you try to sleep on the plane. Anyone treating this as a real threat to true mom and pop stores is just as out of touch as the two guys who started a company to kill bodegas, named it “Bodega,” and then expected shit not to hit the fan.
Look, no one goes to real bodegas for Terra chips. They go for reasons that pertain to their lives — which can rarely be serviced by a vending machine. When you’re in high school, you go on the way home. You’re walking with a crew, flirting, asking strangers weird questions then busting up laughing before they can answer. Dipping into the corner shop lets you extend the trip; a mini-adventure. You didn’t know you wanted that Honey Bun, but you’ll give a few bites to the girl you’re walking with and she’ll give you a few sips of Tropical Fantasy and the Honey Bun is suddenly the best 50 cents you ever spent.
Can a vending machine give you that? No. Nor can it offer the community that older generations seek by tottering to the same store they’ve been visiting for decades. Besides, Bodega probably won’t sell looseys — for that guy trying kick his smoking habit who needs this one last cig. Or mint balls for a nickel that you spit out after twenty seconds. Or donuts that you didn’t go in wanting, but were worth every penny.
Let’s be real: Do these ex-Google employees really think they’re getting rich off selling quarter water that stains your teeth purple? Not unless they also have a percentage deal with your dentist. Silicon Valley has no clue how to disrupt mom and pop shops, because mom and pops are imbued with humanity and the “disrupt philosophy” operates best in settings where discussions of humanity can be ignored.
What Bodega is really trying to disrupt is Amazon, by shrinking the delivery time of certain essentials down to zero, along with traditional vending machines, which literally employ the company’s exact same model.
Consider these lines, in the last paragraph of the Fast Company piece:
Over time, McDonald hopes to be able to create partnerships with other retailers to bring mini-versions of their stores to where they are needed. Home Depot might set up little Bodegas at construction sites with the 100 most-requested items there, Staples might set one up inside an office, or GNC might have mini-stores in gyms.
That’s an undeniably good idea. And it goes to explain why honchos at Facebook, Dropbox, and Google have all made angel investments. Unfortunately, it takes a lot of unpacking to drill down to that cool concept, when Bodega seems to literally (and bizarrely) be taking aim at the sort of mom and pop spots that have already weathered Amazon’s storm. Sorry tech bros, if Jeff Bezos can’t get us to stop buying Nutter Butters and Snapple as we hop off the J-train, you probably can’t either.
All that said, it’s always a good idea to actually go to your local bodega if you have one. Buy a MegaMillions ticket, a Linden’s cookie, and a blue freezie. Grab a chopped cheese or a bacon and egg roll, waiting on the warmer in that tinfoil wrapper. Have a quick chat — an actual human interaction in a world that seems to be aggressively attacking our need to have actual human interactions. Because if it’s just about buying stuff, the liberal tweeter’s desire to save bodegas from tech bros is every bit as backward as the conservative voter’s desire to save coal mines. Tech is coming for all of us; we can’t stop it.
Luckily, the bodega experience has never been just about buying stuff. It’s about laughing with your friends while you push a dime across the counter for a caramel. It’s about telling your neighbor that your grandkids are visiting, while you pick up a pack of Kleenex. It’s been about being human — and that’s something Silicon Valley still hasn’t figured out how to disrupt.