Tech company clarifies goal after 'bodega' concept meets social media backlash

The company's co-founder describes "Bodega" as "8 square feet of retail shelf space that can sell anything." (Photo courtesy Bodega)

A tech startup issued a clarification about its idea to sell goods in cabinets in locations like apartment buildings and offices after an article about the concept sparked backlash on Twitter on Wednesday.

Ex-Google employees Paul McDonald and Ashwath Rajan launched a new concept that they are calling "Bodega."

A blog post Wednesday written by McDonald describes the "Bodega" concept as "8 square feet of retail shelf space that can sell anything," items like toiletries or snacks. He says the items are tailored based on specific cabinet locations, such as offices, apartments or dorms.

The company says customers can access the shelves with the tap of a button. Cameras scan what the customers take, and the customers' credit cards are automatically charged.

A Fast Company article presented the startup as a company that "wanted to make bodegas and mom and pop corner stores obsolete." But in the blog post, McDonald said the company was not trying to put corner stores out of business.

"Rather than disrespect to traditional corner stores — or worse yet, a threat — we intended only admiration," McDonald wrote.

"They stock thousands of items, far more than we could ever fit on a few shelves," he added. "Their owners know what products to carry and in many cases who buys what. And they’re run by people who in addition to selling everything from toilet paper to milk also offer an integral human connection to their patrons that our automated storefronts never will."

The concept was met with displeasure and derision when Fast Company initially posted the article to its Twitter page.

Some Twitter users took issue with the company's decision to name itself "Bodega" after the term for corner stores.

In the Fast Company article, McDonald is quoted as saying they did surveys in the Latin American community asking if the name "bodega" was a misappropriation of the term, and he said the surveys' results indicated it wasn't.

In the blog post, McDonald admitted that the company did not fully understand the backlash they would receive from the company name and apologized.

He referenced that they did "homework - speaking with New Yorkers, branding people, and even running some survey work asking about the name and any potential offense it might cause.

"But it’s clear that we may not have been asking the right questions of the right people," he added.

The concept itself also received some backlash from users on Twitter. Some Twitter users compared it to a vending machine.

In a Forbes article, McDonald disagreed with that notion: he called his invention "the iPhone of the retail world," and said a vending machine was like "the payphone of the retail world."

Other Twitter users praised the sense of community they get from visiting bodegas.

Others tied the idea to the concept of gentrification.

The company's blog page says 30 "Bodegas" are currently operating in the Bay Area. The FastCompany article says the company "plans to quickly go national."

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