Bulking Up: Shoppers Buying More in Bulk

When the going gets tough, the tough buy bulk. Consumers bypass the boxes in Center Store in favor of exact amounts available at supermarket bulk-food displays. With a move toward what's healthy for you, we have seen our entire healthy snack category grow, said Vivian King, director of public affairs for Roundy's Supermarkets, Milwaukee. Granolas are very popular now because they are healthy and quick

When the going gets tough, the tough buy bulk. Consumers bypass the boxes in Center Store in favor of exact amounts available at supermarket bulk-food displays.

“With a move toward what's healthy for you, we have seen our entire healthy snack category grow,” said Vivian King, director of public affairs for Roundy's Supermarkets, Milwaukee. “Granolas are very popular now because they are healthy and quick snacks.”

Bulk foods are growing into mainstream, and variety is expanding beyond the typical favorites found in natural food stores and co-ops. According to United Natural Foods, Dayville, Conn., sales of bulk beans have grown 52% over the prior year, grains are up 43% and flours and sweeteners have each increased 41%. Stores have expanded their selection to include bulk pasta (up 23%), herbs and spices (up 19%) and tea (up 15%).

“You can buy products from a bulk bin that are a little cheaper, sometimes a lot cheaper, if it's something like oats,” said Bart McKnight, category manager for natural foods at Trade Fixtures/Newleaf Designs, a designer and manufacturer of displays based in Little Rock, Ark.

More numbers from United Natural Foods help prove the point. The retail price of a 16-ounce box of raisins is $3.54, while the same amount from the bulk bin is $2.99, for a savings of more than 15%. The same goes for a 20-ounce package of corn flakes. The retail is $4.29 — almost 13% more than the $3.74 paid at the bulk section.

But cost savings tell only part of the story. A concurrent trend is just as strong, and has little to do with the economy.

“With more people focusing on the environment, recycling, and the amount of packaging their food has, the entire bulk food section is popular,” said King. Roundy's offers bulk foods in many of the chain's 152 stores, which also operate under the Pick 'n Save, Copps, Rainbow and Metro Market banners.

To encourage sales, the industry has launched “Bulk is Green,” a dual consumer-retailer campaign. Supermarket executives are reminded that margins remain stable, even though consumers might save up to 60% by purchasing bulk foods. The design and efficiency of the fixtures themselves have also been upgraded to enhance sanitation and squeeze more profits from a smaller footprint, according to McKnight.

“They can get a lot of SKUs in a 4-foot section that doesn't take a lot of space, contrary to what people might think, to have a nice, robust little bulk set,” he said, noting that a 4-foot section can carry 28 SKUs — though his company recommends devoting at least 12 feet of space “so that the set appears to have some depth, instead of appearing like an afterthought.”