Friday, September 15, 2017

Saving bodegas, saving third spaces!

Nur Asri is an associate at Larisa Ortiz Associates

This week, two ex-Googlers announced their recent innovation, “BODEGA”, a vending machine, or five-foot-wide pantry box, slated to become the next big convenience stop or amenity in cities across the country. A convenience that is in fact already being provided by already existing bodegas (as they are known here in NYC), or corner stores. These stores, typically run by immigrants, are “frills-free symbols of consumer access and gritty mini-embodiments of the city’s diversity and 24/7 ethos”, and have become more than just a convenient neighborhood retailer. They are ‘third spaces’, extensions of many residents’ homes, and locations where ideas are exchanged and relationships are built. Most importantly, bodegas represent the livelihoods of thousands of immigrants in cities across the country.

Needless to say, “BODEGA” was faced with a great amount of backlash the day it was announced. And we won’t sit quietly either so here’s a quick summary of why “BODEGA” won’t be filling a market gap here, or in most other cities, and will never match up as the amenity that a real bodega is.  
1.       Bodegas are already convenient in most neighborhoods, particularly ones that are not well- served by full-service grocery stores

I did a quick search of NAICS-code defined ‘Food and Beverage stores’ (NAICS: 445) that only had 10 or fewer employees and had annual sales of less than $1 million (Admittedly, these are just some of many characteristics that are presumed to be typical of small family-owned bodegas in New York City but it was the quickest way I could get an estimate of where bodegas or corner stores are already located in a locality) to look at just how convenient they are location-wise.

Estimate location of corner stores and bodegas in North Brooklyn, NY (Source: LOA; ESRI Business Analyst Online)
In North Brooklyn, just by eyeballing, there appears to be at least 1 bodega or corner store every 0.2 mile (mostly! – note the bodega deserts by the Gowanus canal and in Prospect Park). Given that most people are only willing to walk 0.25 mile as part of a commute or to access amenities like parks and public spaces, we can safely say that bodegas here are within the realm of  being convenient and of ‘walking distance’.

Likewise in Lower Manhattan, bodegas and corner stores are everywhere, safe for along the East River but remember, this part of Manhattan is better-served by full-service grocery stores anyway.
Estimate location of corner stores and bodegas in Lower Manhattan and Williamsburg, NY (Source: LOA; ESRI Business Analyst Online)
Operation hours-wise, bodegas are typically open between 16-18 hours per day (if not 24/7), making it accessible to almost everyone returning home at all hours of the day. Furthermore, for some people in NYC, where apartments are shoe-box sized, the lack of a full fridge means that the bodega is also the convenient extended freezer. So you know where you’re going to get that tub of ice cream in the middle of the night when you’re craving a treat.

2.       Bodegas are increasingly offering a wide range of products
A wide selection of fresh fruit at a corner store
in Bedford-Stuyvesant Brooklyn, NY

From non-perishables to fresh produce and beers, the bodega has it! Unlike “BODEGA” that can only carry non-perishable goods (because you know, it’s essentially a vending machine), the bodegas we already have in our neighborhoods can carry almost anything and everything and are therefore more useful to households in the long run. I buy cheese, milk and eggs every other Saturday when I’m finally itching to make an omelet for a leisurely breakfast and I doubt “BODEGA” will ever be able to meet this need. Other residents in Brooklyn today are a little more fortunate and have local bodegas that carry really high quality fresh produce.

3.       Many bodegas are already ‘smart’

Both bodegas that I frequent in my neighborhood have ‘feedback boards’ that enable customers to write the names of products that they wish to see in the store. It’s a simple solution that involves a small cork board, Post-Its and Sharpies, yet owners are able to get more information than “BODEGA” will ever get from its cameras. The cameras in “BODEGA” will apparently track what items are being removed from the machine before sending this data back to main offices to restock the item.

Another thing we need to remember – bodegas also have real people manning the counters, the aisles, the sandwich counters. These people constantly chat with customers to find out if there are any products their customers wanted to see in store. “BODEGA” claims it will have motion sensors to track what products are more popular, and for whom, but I think it’s much easier when I can just express this same information to a person who owns/ manages the store in real-time, don’t you?

4.       Bodegas are hyper locally-sensitive and have personalities

To add on to the earlier argument about the humanness of bodegas, as neighborhoods rapidly change in cities, one block may be extremely different than the next one which also means that bodegas are now stocking almost entirely different products on a block-by-block basis. They are often responding to socio- economic demographics at a block-level and “BODEGA” hasn’t indicated the same capability.

As Adam Chandler wrote in the NYTimes, each bodega is “oddly curated” and no algorithm is clever enough to come up with these eccentricities (at least, not yet). From the Polish specialty foods to Colombian snacks, each bodega has its own specialty treats and delicacies.

5.       Bodegas are third spaces

Franklin Deli Bodega in Greenpoint, Brooklyn NY.
 Photo: Shawn Hoke via Flickr
A relationship with your bodega means you could get a sandwich hook up at an odd hour of the day. More importantly, bodegas are your literal neighbors. They are located below your apartment or next to your building or across from you and are operated by the same people day in and day out. You can chat about the English soccer game happening at the moment, or you can chat about the fact that it’s been a little loud on the street this past weekend, and they’re more than likely to share an opinion about the topic. In one instance, I had a full-blown conversation with the guy at my bodega about how much tastier Pepsi Light was compared to regular Pepsi and the kids in line behind me were more than excited to chime in.

Whether these interactions and relationships are forced or not, they are bound to occur in the small spaces of bodegas, making them vital community spaces for residents in cities across the country.

6.       Bodegas are natural surveillance systems for the neighborhood.

As mentioned earlier, bodegas are open 16-18 hours of the day and in some cases open 24/7, which means bodega employees and customers walking in and out thru late hours of the night serve as ‘eyes on the street’ and round-the-clock surveillance.

7.       Bodegas are employment centers for immigrants

Finally, bodegas are a large employer of immigrants. A Fiscal Policy Institute study published in 2011 found that more than 48% of NYC businesses owners are foreign-born, and in particular, they dominate certain lines of businesses such as dry cleaning, taxi services, and grocery stores (of which bodegas and corner stores make up a reasonable share of this category).

In NYC, retail trade is the broad industry with the largest number of immigrant small business owners. While a full 90 percent of the city’s dry cleaning and taxi service owners are immigrants, a close 84 percent of grocery store owners are also immigrants.

These immigrant business owners already face numerous obstacles in running their businesses, most commonly lack of access to capital (which, apparently “BODEGA” has not been short of) and inability to comply with city business regulations. For now, it seems “BODEGA” will only serve to add problems by becoming a new source of competition for our bodegas, if it does get rolled out in cities like New York, where corner stores and bodegas are already popular.

Like everyone else we'll be paying close attention to where “BODEGA” gets expanded to see if its co-founder, Hunter Walk, keeps his word on “not disrupt[ing] or replace[ing] the urban corner store… the bodega”. 

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