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The Incredible Bulk

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The recession hasn’t been very kind to natural and organic retailers, but there have been a few bright spots — and the brightest one, many will agree, has been the bulk department.

Yes, bulk: Those rows of plastic bins stretching down the aisles that, at just the pull of a lever, dispense everything from trail mix to chocolate nibs to shampoo. Shoppers can save money by taking as much or as little as they want, and save packaging by using the thin produce bags that, at a growing number of stores, come in biodegradable varieties.

pcc-redmond-bulk-dept.JPGBulk is cheap, and bulk is green. But bulk is also different, and that makes it a complicated opportunity for many of the retailers, especially the mainstream ones, that are jumping on the trend.

To figure out how to best manage the category, I turned to an expert: Doug Sanders, president of Sprouts Farmers Market. Sprouts now operates 50 stores throughout the Southwest, and at each one, bulk is the star.

“The dead center of our store is the bulk department,” said Sanders. “Produce and bulk combined probably take up 30% of our store.”

Inside the department, Sprouts customers can find time-honored favorites like nuts and granola, as well as more modern, gourmet fare like dark chocolate pieces and cranberry-infused trail mixes. The latter choices, Sanders noted, are doing particularly well right now, in light of consumer awareness of antioxidants.

Getting shoppers to use the bulk department is the biggest challenge. Some are confused or intimidated by the section, others don’t think it’s sanitary. This brings to mind all sort of educational opportunities, from signage to demos, even in-store videos. But Sanders prefers to let customers come to the section on their own terms. He simply provides the incentive.

“Four, five, maybe six times a year we’ll put the entire department at 25% off,” he said. “When you can create some excitement about the entire department, you’ll get people trying certain things that they may not ever try.”

Beyond this, Sanders said, a successful bulk department requires constant maintenance — both in terms of rotating out bins to make sure items are fresh, and keeping on top of what’s selling well. It’s also important to follow industry trends, to know what might be the next big seller.

“It’s really about staying current,” said Sanders. “We noticed the popularity of antioxidants in cranberries and acai, and now we’re offering trail mixes and other products, and those have really taken off.”

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