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10 Items or Less
bodegacats.gif via Twitter

Me-ow! Culturally insensitive startup gets clawed online

This post is part of the 10 Items or Less blog.

Way back when Webvan was a mortal threat to the future of retail I found more rumor, insight and detail than I’d probably care to admit on a website called “F’d Company” that gleefully reported on the impending burst of the first dot-com bubble.

That site itself bit the dust a decade ago but the internet still loves to eat its young, judging by the Twitterstorm that followed an article this week on another well-funded West Coast startup with designs on changing retail, Bodega.

An article published Wednesday by Fast Company (F’d Company’s parody title) included a description of Bodega — basically, a vending machine incorporating machine learning that could provide location-specific assortments for hyper-local environments like apartment buildings, hotels, dorms or gyms. The idea, founders explained, is to conquer not the last mile of commerce but the last 100 feet.

It’d be all well and good had they stopped there, but the article, whose headline blared the company’s founders “want to make bodegas and mom-and-pop stores obsolete,” also included remarks from co-founder Paul McDonald indicating he was “not particularly concerned” that choosing the name “Bodega” — and a logo of a cat — would have negative connotations or be seen as a misappropriation of a term closely associated with family-run, immigrant-owned, cat-owning businesses.

The Fast Company writer had no problems finding those who disagreed, quoting Frank Garcia, the chairman of the New York State Coalition of Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, who said “Bodegas can’t compete with this technology, because it is so much more expensive to have a brick-and-mortar store than a small machine. To compete with bodegas and also use the ‘bodega’ name is unbelievably disrespectful.”

In a world set into a frenzy by debate over DACA and the wall, not to mention a food-desert scourge, debate over income inequality, general gentrification anxiety, and a medium that loves cats, the well-funded but culturally deaf startup was red meat.

The rage was so pure and so universal that McDonald within a few hours penned a contrite apology at the Bodega website. “Rather than disrespect to traditional corner stores — or worse yet, a threat  —  we intended only admiration,” he said, adding, “We commit to reviewing the feedback and understanding the reactions from today.”

Personally I think Bodega — whatever they wind up changing their name to — is perfectly capable of failing without the help of an enraged internet, and that the actual bodegas are perfectly capable of withstanding the competitive incursion of 50-item nonperishable vending machines. But the saga ought to at the very least provide a marketing lesson and perhaps, a clue as to the limits of “disruption” the country is willing to take. Not everyone is F’ed.

Flotsam and Jet-sam

At home, where it’s back to school and into a more predictable household routine, we’ve begun experimenting with e-commerce grocery again.

We’ve had an on-again, off-again romances with such services before including a fling with Amazon Fresh when it first arrived and Peapod, which we like for the option of a “Farm Box” to replace the CSA we used to use until the distribution point within walking distance from our home dropped out.

Most recently we gave in to months of direct-mail introductory offers and gave a shot.

We enjoyed watching as Jet’s “game-ified” shop come to life giving us opportunity to lower our costs as we built the basket and the prices overall appeared to be pretty good: Our eggs were 87 cents (listed at 99 cents but with a 12-cent shipping efficiency discount); a pound of seedless grapes came down from $2.49 to $2. Some of that discount “came back” in the form of a flat $4.95 cold-pack delivery fee; some went away again with the introductory 15% off order discount.

We also liked that Jet un-fussily accepted a mix of grocery and non-grocery items and broke them into separate ships as necessary — one handled by a local delivery company, and the cold stuff coming by FedEx the following day. This allowed us to get a roll of packing tape we needed along with our groceries that in the real world would likely have caused us a second store trip.

But. There’s always a “but,” right?

Jet's gigantic purple bags help make shipping efficient and convenient but leave behind a lot.

The chilled groceries arrived — unattended for savings — in a disarming amount of packaging. The convenience and cost-savings of unattended delivery meant the boxes included literally dozens of ice bags, lots of thick recycled cotton linings, all inside gigantic purple plastic bags. The items themselves also appeared to have more packaging than ideal. I suppose this is because Jet targets small urban apartments but our order of six navel oranges arrived three separate bags of two each.

Jet is obviously trying to to communicate the right sustainability message: Reminding us the cotton liners (which when extracted half-filled a 32-gallon trash bin) are already recycled, and encouraging us to recycle the bags, including the ice bags. The great irony of course is that New York state law requires us to recycle bags only by — you guessed it — traveling to a grocery store and using a recycling bin there.

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