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What’s in a Name?

By now, you’ve probably heard about Bodega. No, not a bodega, the small convenience/grocery stores usually operated by immigrant families in urban markets. I’m talking about Bodega, the West Coast-based startup that is rolling out five-foot-wide high-tech vending machines containing a limited array of nonperishable food and sundry items.

The Silicon Valley entrepreneurs behind the new vending concept never expected to get barraged with negative commentary on social media following a profile in Fast Company magazine about their innovative approach of melding artificial intelligence to mobile retailing.

The founders have placed about 50 of these vending units in apartment buildings, offices, dorms and sports clubs in the San Francisco area. To use them, a person just needs to open an app on their phone and connect to the box’s smart technology, which will recognize the items selected and automatically charge the user’s credit card. The creators said they hope to install more than a thousand of these smart boxes across the United States by the end of 2018.

In today’s politically correct culture, is it any wonder that social media exploded with negative reaction to the story, accusing the two techies of “misappropriating” the culture of the immigrant shopkeepers who run real bodegas.

Retail outlets in the convenience store industry already have their share of shall we say interesting names, such as Kum & Go, Terrible Herbst, Toot’n Totum, Loaf ‘N Jug and Handee Hugo’s. And what’s with the apparent preoccupation with animals? Kangaroo Express, Li’l Cricket, Roadrunner Market, Turkey Hill, etc. I wonder if people of Scottish descent ever accused Scotchman stores of misappropriating their culture.

I suppose that’s why most retailers in the convenience store industry stick with store names that highlight the fast-service nature of convenience using some form of the word “quick” (with either a “Q” or a “K”). There’s Quick Stop, QuickChek, Quik Shop, QuikTrip, Kwik Shop, Kwik Mart, Kwik Fill, Kwik Farms, Kwik Stop, Kwik Trip, Kwik Star and Kwik Chek.

The founders of Bodega say they are rethinking the name, though I’m not sure there’s a crying need for these machines in the first place; not with so many more options for fresh food cropping up everywhere, including at easy-to-get-to convenience stores.

The lessons in this story for c-store operators are twofold. First, don’t take cultural or ethnic considerations lightly when naming and launching new products, promotions or events. Indeed, ESPN recently reassigned an Asian-American college football announcer named Robert Lee from calling a game in Charlottesville, Va., because they were afraid his name would inflame tensions after the riots there over the removal of the confederate general’s statue.

Second, disruptors are everywhere. If it’s not vending machines, it’s going to be Amazon, or hybrid grocery or drugstore retailers, or someone else you haven’t even imagined yet. Everyone wants to play in the “convenience” pond. C-stores must stay atop their game and constantly innovate to stay relevant to their customers.

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