Natural Foods Merchandiser

Bringing vitamins to the bulk section: Q&A with VitalBulk's Mark James

VitalBulk's Mark James chats about how he came up with the idea for a bulk vitamin dispenser, how it works, and how the reaction has been so far from retailers and consumers.

The latest addition to a growing trend toward bulk? Dietary supplements. We talk with Mark James, the entrepreneur behind VitalBulk, about the eco-friendly, cost-effective and consumer-friendly trend.

newhope360: Why did you start VitalBulk?

Mark James: My parents ran a health food store in San Anselmo, Calif., called Healthwise. I started working in sales for Nature’s Life in 1991 and am now an independent sales representative for Vitamer Labs. Working in stores for 20 years, I looked at the packaging and the way things are getting more expensive every year. Supplement makers are pricing themselves out of the lives of many people who need them and would benefit. We all know that people who have access to dietary supplements live longer, and I see this as an excellent way to increase the public’s exposure to basic nutrition.

newhope360: What are the "pros" of bulk dispensing?

MJ: Bulk dispensing makes them more cost effective, more environmentally friendly, and the customer controls the purchase size. But there are problems with current bulk-product system chain of custody and sanitary protection. I have been working for many years to design and patent the VitalBulk bin, which addresses those concerns and protects dietary supplements according to the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act.

My own one-year supplement bottle use was more than a hundred bottles. Approximately 30 percent of glass and plastic are recycled but when you look at amber glass and small plastic bottles the recycled numbers decline drastically!  One VitalBulk bag saves between 15 and 200 100-count bottles

newhope360: How many stores are you in?

MJ: We’re less than nine months old and are currently testing in nine stores (and growing!) to determine customers’ reactions. I have the concept in several excellent co-ops, such as Seattle-based PCC Natural Markets, as well as a couple of large health food stores and a beautiful conventional store.

newhope360: Who makes your supplements?  

MJ: Only cGMP facilities that I have qualified under my GMPs.  VitalBulk products are produced to meet label claim at expiration, and we have SOPs for lot numbers and expiration dates that we can track to stores. They are Prop 65 compliant and adhere to the Natural Product Association’s TruLabel standards.

newhope360: What response are you getting from retailers?

MJ: Retail stores are seeing space savings because in 4 to 6 inches of shelf space, they are replacing the need for 15 to 200 bottles. As their customers come to understand and use the system, they are able to decrease their shelf bottle selection, say of vitamin D, and increase other product selections. VitalBulk also saves labor dollars for restocking. Opening the bag in the bulk bin takes less than five minutes, versus stacking 210 bottles.

There’s an initial cost to buy or lease the bins. You need to build them into your store, and your staff needs to do online training. It’s important that you talk about the section and place it where it will have exposure. I also recommend putting signs next to the vitamin D bottles, for instance, saying: “also available in bulk.”

newhope360: What are consumers saying?

MJ: It’s interesting! I put our system into a store in Davis, Calif., and we tracked it for a couple of months and it did okay. But the third month, the store sold more than 30 pounds of bulk vitamins. The only significant change the buyer and I could find is that students were back in town to attend UC Davis and the younger demographic literally “buys” the concept.

I like to say it’s like the new chair in the room. Your dog barks at it the first time he sees it, then later he’s sleeping in it. Shoppers ask questions, but then they get it. I am testing in conventional stores to see how attractive price is—conventional shoppers care less about reducing packaging, but it’s doing better in health food stores.

Natural shoppers really understand about less packaging and appreciate our quality—that our fish oil has a good dose of EPA and DHA, that we’re using rice bran oil as a filler in our B caps, not soy oil. Our supplements are free of fillers and allergens and potency is guaranteed through expiration. I’m working with a lab now to do accelerated degrading studies specifically for this new environment.

newhope360: Tell us how the bins work. How do you manage freshness, cleanliness and spillage?

MJ: The supplements are packaged in the VitalBulk Bag at the factory and aren’t opened until they are in our bins at the store. It’s a 4-millimeter thick Mylar bag lined with LDPE, which is BPA free and currently used in water bottles. It’s water and vapor tight and 100 percent UVA protected, as is the BPA-free bin. When the bag is opened, the pills fall to the front, where there’s a dessicant packet.

It’s a two-stage dispensing system, with the main compartment never open to the store so it’s not exposed to fingers or contaminants. First you fill an internal container, which has lines estimating the number of pills. Then you close that, put a biodegradable LDPR bag over the secondary dispenser and fill it. Each bin has a roll of stickers printed with the Supplement Facts panel, which the shopper sticks on the bag.

I will have bottles later, but I like the bags. They’re reusable, biodegradable and easy for the store to weigh. You store them in a cool, dark place just like bottles. I keep mine in a tea tin, which my wife likes better than bottles all over counter. I provide dessicant packets shoppers can take.

I’m working on a second-generation bin that has even better dispensing control. I also just finished a working prototype of a single-pill dispenser that’s in two health clubs in California—everything from D to calcium. It’s like a gumball machine gone healthy.

Your turn: Would you sell or buy bulk supplements? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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