How A New Name Sparked An Unattended Retail Turnaround

How A New Name Sparked A Retail Turnaround

Shakespeare famously wrote, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet,” proving two things at once. First, the fact that he is one of the foremost playwrights in the history of the human language. The second is that he clearly never founded a Silicon Valley startup.

Because, as it turns out, there’s an awful lot in a name when it comes to getting a new idea off the ground – and if one misses the mark, the odds are quite good that consumers won’t get close enough to the product to determine whether its only problem is an unfortunate choice of moniker.

Case in point, Stockwell: a self-service retail venture that got off on a very wrong foot with customers by, among other things, choosing the wrong name. When Stockwell launched in September of 2017, it went by a different name: Bodega. Stockwell’s founder maintained at the time that the name was meant as an homage to the small (often immigrant-run) grocery shops and corner stores that dot urban neighborhoods in New York City.

But the branding came across somewhat differently. Bodega’s widely stocked vending machines were presented as a disruptive alternative to mom-and-pop shops and genuine bodegas everywhere. The brand was widely accused of being culturally insensitive and appropriating the name of the very shops they were hoping to push out of business with their full-service vending machines.

The Washington Post branded Bodega the most hated startup in America. Unfortunately, that branding stuck, showing up in a lot of headlines written about the unmanned cupboard startup in late 2017.

Most brands hope to make a big splash when they enter the market – but not for this type of reason. The team at Stockwell – which was still Bodega at the time – apologized and attempted to clarify their actual aims and ideals in a blog post shortly after the ill-fated launch.

“Despite our best intentions and our admiration for traditional bodegas, we clearly hit a nerve this morning … we apologize. Rather than disrespect to traditional corner stores – or worse yet, a threat – we intended only admiration,” CEO Paul McDonald wrote.

The Bodega name stuck around for another 10 months, but the firm began to change behind the scenes. In 2018, a little under a year after their first launch, Bodega machines officially disappeared, as the company officially rebranded its comprehensive vending solutions – which it calls “stores” to reflect the diversity of goods they contain – to Stockwell.

“Our new name is one of the changes we’re making as we expand our offerings and open more stores around the country,” McDonald noted at the time.

And, although the firm very much dipped out of the public eye after its initial stumble at launch, it has been quietly growing up and out. There are now over 1,000 Stockwell machines spread across the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, Houston and Chicago. The brand has also continued to raise money – during its last funding round a year ago, the firm picked up $35 million, and it has been valued by third parties at roughly $100 million, though Stockwell has declined to comment on any specific figures.

According to the company, its future is now about building scale and creating a national presence for its vending cupboards. Though the firm is tight-lipped on any specific plans, a spokesperson noted that they are looking to develop shared ownership models, which would individuals or businesses to operate their own Stockwell “stores.” The company also reports that it is working on expanding its curation model to better match specific machines to consumer needs in their area, and to increasingly include up-and-coming brands that consumers might not otherwise encounter.

Stockwell’s transition from its launch to where it is today – with a new name and a distinctly lower profile – was a difficult one, a spokesperson noted. But the opportunity to “iterate on our core product” has fundamentally improved their unattended retail offering and plans for expansion.

Which means they remain excited for the road ahead – though also hopeful that it will be somewhat less bumpy than the road behind.


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