Backlash from ‘Bodega Mania’ a lesson for fintech, payments industries

28. October 2017.

Editor’s note:This article originally appeared on Kiosk Marketplace, a Mobile Payments Today sister site.

By causing accusations of cultural insensitivity two weeks ago, a pair of ex-Google entrepreneurs managed to draw more attention to self-serve retailing than anyone has in years. I’m referring to Fast Company report about Bodega, a self-serve convenience kiosk that will allow shoppers to access and pay for products using smartphones.

Twitter went wild with accusations that entrepreneurs Paul McDonald and Ashwath Rajan, founders of Bodega, were trying to put local, immigrant-owned stores out of business, while hijacking the name for their product (“Bodega”) from the immigrant community. Critics even took issue with Bodega’s logo — the image of a cat that frequently inhabits corner stores.

“I wouldn’t put it past these ass$#%^# to punch a few air holes and jam a cat in there,” someone from Twitter charged.

Not even Amazon Go, a self-serve retail concept announced late last year and heralded as a “game changer,” generated as much media notice as Bodega.

Bodega pleads for understanding

The day after the Fast Company article, one of Bodega’s two founders responded to the social media firestorm with a Medium blog saying he was not trying to put small stores out of business. As for using a name associated with immigrants, McDonald said his own research had indicated people would not take offense at this, and he apologized for being wrong.

Yet Twitter still went wild. So much that it drew notice from national media outlets, including National Public Radio, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Fortune, Scientific American and others. Pundits castigated Bodega’s founders for failing to predict the public relations liability they created for themselves.

Given the amount of coverage Bodega received for a kiosk concept that really isn’t new, one almost wonders if the cultural insensitivity the pair has been accused of wasn’t by design — though not because they are genuinely culturally insensitive. While most of the social media comments were highly critical of Bodega, there isn’t a technology executive — at least on this side of the Atlantic — who hasn’t heard of it in the last week.

When Amazon announced Amazon Go last year, there was no social media frenzy drawing national media attention. Amazon Go isn’t identical to Bodega since it’s an actual physical store, but it certainly has potential to disrupt traditional retailing using artificial intelligence.

The differentiating factor is Bodega’s perceived cultural insensitivity — which led many branding experts to chime in on the need for better messaging.

“The ‘killing the mom and pop shop’ message is not only offensive, it’s not really designed for either a customer or end-consumer audience,” Deb Gabor, CEO of Sol Marketing, emailed Kiosk Marketplace. “You can say that to investors; but don’t ever tell a real human that you’re going to kill a familiar social convention.”

Gabor’s advice is well and good, but there are bigger issues at stake. Technology is changing the world as we know it, and the sooner the public realizes it, the better.

To the extent that Bodega’s reputation has been tarnished on account of its name, the problem can be fixed with a new name.

But saying, as he did in his apology blog, that “challenging the urban corner store is not and has never been our goal,” McDonald evades the issue at hand and obscures an important reality: artificial intelligence is disrupting traditional retailing. McDonald knows full well technology is changing retailing and consumers will be better served by more convenient and efficient options. That’s why he was able to secure funding from venture capital firms and executives at Google, Facebook, Twitter and Dropbox.

Bigger issues are at stake

Automation and artificial intelligence are changing many aspects of the way we live. Smartphones are replacing desktops. Robots are replacing warehouse and factory workers. Autonomous cars are on the way.

The technology community has a responsibility to alert the public that these changes are coming, and that as far as jobs are concerned, new skills are needed. The need to get the word out about major social change is more important than assuaging the feelings of those who have trouble accepting it.

John Miller, chairman and CEO of the Cali Group, told the 2017 Restaurant Franchising & Innovation Summit in London last month that automation is creating a major need for engineers, managers, installation and system support specialists.

Miller’s comments — reported by Kiosk Marketplace and several of its sister websites — are an example of the kind of leadership that is needed.

The information technology sector in the U.S. has added jobs every month this year, except for April, according to a CompTIA analysis of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By the end of July, the field added about 72,100 new positions.

For all the notoriety Bodega garnered for being culturally insensitive, several pundits observed the irony that the machine itself is no more innovative than many existing self-serve merchandisers.

“Bodega mistakes a tech twist on an existing concept as innovation,” quipped Devindra Hardawar, senior editor of Endgadget.

Within the last 12 months, Kiosk Marketplace has reported on Accelerated Retail Technologies, AR Systems and Via Touch, all of which use “multi-sensor checkout” technology to enable consumers to purchase products from a self-serve machine without having to swipe a payment card or even open a mobile wallet.

Hopefully, Bodega’s social media firestorm will help educate the automated retailing industry and the technology community about the need to be direct with the public on important forthcoming changes.

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