Natural Foods Merchandiser

The incredible bulk

“Go big or go home” may not be the first quote that comes to mind these days. But bulk departments may be the ones harboring the biggest savings. “The demand for bulk has increased from both the consumer and retailer perspective,” says Ellen Bouchard, bulk manager for Norway, Iowa-based distributor Frontier Natural Products Co-op. “Now, we have new customers that are realizing the benefits of buying in bulk—cost savings, freshness, choice of quantity and the environmental savings.”

“Buying bulk should not be a mystery.”

Cleveland, Ohio-based retailer Nature's Bin boosted bulk sales by 27 percent last year. “The value-seeking customer as well as the ‘go green' customer is driving the new focus on bulk now, especially in this difficult economic downturn,” says owner Scott Duennes. These five tips will help retailers cater to every customer—and bulk up sales.

Spice it up
“More consumers are cooking at home,” says Bouchard. “Thanks to the increase in cooking shows and magazines, consumers are becoming more adventurous in the kitchen and trying new culinary and ethnic dishes.”

Bulk grains, beans, flours and sweeteners had the greatest increase in sales last year for Dayville, Conn.-based United Natural Foods, but distributors also responded to the increased demand for bulk spices. Cumin, chili powder and turmeric were among Frontier's top 2008 sellers. The company also sourced organic smoked paprika and introduced premium Vietnamese cinnamon. “With bulk options, consumers can buy several new ingredients for a specific recipe and only for the quantity the recipe calls for,” Bouchard says.

Staples remained best sellers for Akron, Ohio-based retailer Mustard Seed Market & Cafe, which saw a 7.3 percent increase in bulk sales last year, but whole-leaf teas and spices are its up-and-comers, says owner Margaret Nabors.

To maintain high quality and avoid fading, store spices in tightly closed containers away from sunlight and regularly rotate the product rather than pouring new spices on top.

Mix it up
“If it's a good, popular item at the packaged level then it will be a good item to carry in bulk,” says Michael Cline, bulk foods national category manager for St. Augustine, Fla.-based distributor Tree of Life. Power foods grew in popularity but so did their variations: flavored nuts, vegetable crisps and infused fruits like the organic apple juice-sweetened cranberries at Nature's Bin.

“Make sure you are keeping up on the latest flavor trends and keep a certain percent of your bulk bins available to rotate in those ‘hot' ingredients,” such as goji berries and fair-trade whole-leaf tea, Bouchard says.

Cline says carrying both organic and natural is another important way to diversify departments.

Clean it up
With large quantities of food, small spills easily occur, causing what Cline politely calls a “not very attractive department.” Avoid the mess by staying organized and fully stocked, says Ryann Comerford, Nature's Bin bulk buyer. New bulk bins aided in the department's rapid growth. Plus, having a specialized staff will keep the bulk department child-friendly and maximize efficiency.

Doll it up
Accessorizing is one of the latest trends in bulk departments, says Bouchard. Fundamentals like scales, bags, labels and pens are just the beginning. Provide directions and product information in “spice books” and attend to details with separate scoops for organic and non-organic products.

Talk it up
There are the bulk “die-hards” and the bulk “newbies,” according to Nabors. Particularly for those first-timers, education is key. “Promote the green aspect,” Cline says. “Less packaging means more savings and better for the environment.”

Also communicate the how-tos. “Some consumers who want to buy bulk can be intimidated because they don't know how to do it,” says Bouchard. “Buying bulk should not be a mystery. It should be easy, with clear, step-by-step directions.” Being consistent with nutritional information and ingredient lists creates clarity, and choosing a supplier that provides the labels saves time and money.

Jessica Rubino is a freelance writer based in Boulder, Colo.

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