Bodega, a San Francisco-based startup that operates fully-automated kiosks roughly the size of vending machines, introduced itself to the world Wednesday. The company has raised $2.5 million in a funding round led by venture capital firms Homebrew and First Round Capital, TechCrunch reports.
Thirty Bodega kiosks (which the company calls “bodegas”) are already operational in apartment buildings, gyms and office buildings throughout the Bay Area. The company will presumably use the seed money to expand.
Bodega users create an account on the company’s smartphone app and input their credit card information. As a customer approaches a kiosk, he/she inputs a three-digit, kiosk-specific code via the app. The code unlocks the kiosk so the customer can reach in and grab what he/she needs.
Cameras track the movement of the customer’s hand to determine what he has picked out, and then automatically charge the customer’s credit card.
Though the eight-square-foot cabinets may sound like high-tech vending machines (essentially, they are), Bodega kiosks stock a wider and more customized range of products than traditional vending machines do. The particular items stocked at a given kiosk are tailored to the demands of the customers who use that kiosk. A Bodega in an apartment building, for instance, may offer everything from toothbrushes to Solo cups. A kiosk located in a gym might have health food, sportswear, etc.
Depending on its location, a kiosk will come stocked with a “base set of products” (TechCrunch’s words). As customers begin to buy things, the Bodega system tracks the purchases to gauge which products are in demand at a given kiosk, and surveys repeat customers to ask what they would like to see added. The company refines the offerings accordingly.
The kiosks bring “the relevant slice of a store” to within 100 feet of a customer, the company’s website says.
“Retailers are contouring their business around this fact that users want convenience,” said Paul McDonald, a thirteen-year Google veteran who now runs the startup. “There’s really only been two options: you can go to the store, or you can order something online. What we’re trying to do is introduce a third option, a new way of buying things. Shrink the store, bring the best parts in a smaller form factor and bring it to where you are.”
— Fast Company (@FastCompany) September 13, 2017
Some have criticized the “Bodega” name and its implication that the company intends to compete with local corner stores like the bodegas in New York and Los Angeles, which are often centerpieces in their communities.
“Bodega” is a Spanish word meaning, more or less, “local shop.” McDonald says, per GQ.com, that his company surveyed the Latin American community as to whether the name was a misappropriation of the term, and 97 percent of respondents said “no.”
“But it’s clear that we may not have been asking the right questions of the right people,” McDonald admits.
“Despite our best intentions and our admiration for traditional bodegas, we clearly hit a nerve this morning, we apologize. Rather than disrespect to traditional corner stores — or worse yet, a threat — we intended only admiration.”
McDonald said the company would review the criticism and consider changing the name.
Many are concerned Bodega, whatever it is called, will threaten traditional bodegas. The company indicated Wednesday that it intends to offer the “same ease and convenience” the ubiquity of corner stores in places like New York City affords.
Bodega clarified that it does not intend to compete with tradition bodegas, which, McDonald says, stock more products than a Bodega kiosk ever could, and offer “integral human connection” between patrons and clerks. Rather than challenge established bodegas, the company says it wants to “bring commerce to places where commerce currently doesn’t exist.”
Still, it seems that, in the places where they do appear, the high-tech Bodegas might siphon a certain amount of business away from local shops. For instance, a person who generally goes to the local bodega when he/she needs milk at 2 a.m., might be inclined to get that milk at a Bodega kiosk were one available in his/her apartment building.
Bodega notes the grocery market is but one of many markets it is targeting. The company envisions itself a competitor more to huge chains like Wal-Mart than small, local shops.
“The market we’re going after is some combination of the grocery, gym market, and everyday essentials. Eventually, what we see is a world where you don’t have to go to the 30,000 square foot stores. Instead, we distribute the store based on products you buy once a week or month,” said McDonald.
The autonomy of Bodega kiosks may threaten retail jobs. “Retail in The U.S. is huge, 10% of Americans work in retail,” McDonald himself notes. “The folks who are retailers want technology to reduce their costs and bring products closer [to consumers].”
In reducing employers’ costs, one may infer, Bodega may take employees’ jobs.
But, McDonald says: “Rather than take away jobs, we hope Bodega will help create them. We see a future where anyone can own and operate a Bodega—delivering relevant items and a great retail experience to places no corner store would ever open.”
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