Bulk sells itself. The simplicity and environmentally sound practices inherent in bulk shopping are largely responsible for the success of this part of your store. As a bulk manager, I am daily appreciative of this fact. I don't have to use fancy displays or advertising gimmicks. Fill up the bins and step aside -- for the most part.
Nevertheless, over years of observing customers, answering questions, listening to comments and complaints from members as well as employees, I have realized that while bulk shopping has a loyal customer base, there are steps I can take that make the shopping experience easier and more efficient, thereby increasing department sales.
To borrow a phrase from the computer world, I call it making my department more "user-friendly." This is essentially a process of putting as much information as possible into customers' hands. This information must be available in a variety of formats. Here are three key areas:
- reference material (books, brochures, articles);
- signs on and around the bins, providing shopping tips and guidelines;
- informed staff.
Knowledgeable staff are the frontline in the effort to provide good customer service. No matter what reference materials you provide, no matter what signage you implement, no matter how easy and straightforward bulk shopping is, customers will first look to a staff member with questions concerning products or how to shop for them. There will be people who have never shopped bulk and who feel intimidated by the rows of bins before them, people who will miss the obvious instructions placed right in front of them, and these people will ask for help. Your staff therefore needs to be well-trained, well-informed, and above all available.
I tell my staff to do a regular circuit of the bulk aisles. They can't be out on the floor continuously (we run single-person shifts in our department), but they must check on things on a regular basis. If they are in the back room repacking candy or dried fruit, every 15 minutes or so they need to get out and walk the aisles to sweep, clean up any messes, answer questions, and check on bin levels; a regular presence on the floor is also important for theft prevention. Even if there are no pressing customer questions, it is important for shoppers to know that we are available.
Employees must be well-trained in store and department policy, a major component of the probationary training period. Education, on the other hand, is an ongoing process. I encourage my employees to take a few minutes during each shift to read about a product or product category in the store's reference library or online. I also maintain a reference section in our department journal that employees can add to if they see something useful. With all of these resources available to us, we should be able to answer questions fairly quickly. However, I emphasize to staff that if they don't have an answer for someone, take a name and number and we'll call back within a day with the information.
Reference materials are also important. Brochures are my favorite: they can be custom-made, they tend to be easily readable, and customers can take them home to read at their leisure. Reference books, displayed properly, are good for more in-depth product and nutritional information as well as cooking ideas. Product fact sheets are a quick, concise, authoritative answer to some questions as well.
Signs fill a difference niche in providing information. They can offer pricing tips, measuring guides, gentle reminders to use manners, etc. Signs are one of my favorite means of disseminating information: I can tailor them to fit appropriate spaces; they can help to fill blank wall space; they are easy to make so I can change them for variety; and they can be effective in preventing problems. I have used signs to cover many bases:
• A chart next to bulk flour bins that gives the weight per cup of each flour, so that a customer can get exactly what s/he needs for a specific recipe;
• Price comparisons of bulk liquids in our different bottle sizes so there is no guesswork in determining how a 16-oz. bulk container of syrup compares to a 12-oz. pre-packaged brand bottle.
• To show how much cheaper bulk herbs are by the ounce compared to bottled herbs;
• To explain equipment such as peanut grinders, coffee grinders, etc.;
• To remind people of shopping manners: for example, tongs are ineffective in picking up bulk spaghetti -- a sign reminds people to use a bag to pick up the product instead of grabbing with a bare hand;
• As a department map for shoppers overwhelmed by an aisle lined with a hundred generic-looking bins;
• To point out the savings from buying large quantities, such as 25-lb. bags of rice, flour, oats, etc., for which we offer an extra discount.
The best part about using signs is that you can customize them to fit your department and your customer base. Keep them simple, type and laminate them, and they are a great investment.
Another helpful tip is to provide the cashiers with a product list that includes product name, price, and PLU number. Inevitably, some customers will forget to write down the PLU on a bag of rice -- how much easier it is if the cashier, rather than running across the store to find the number or waiting for a call-back, can check their handy list and get the correct price and number.
All of these things are designed to make the bulk shopping experience that much easier for everyone. And in a departrment that consistently averages 10-11% of store sales, that's not insignificant. More and more mainstream grocery stores are adding organic and vegetarian sections, but few have any bulk foods. This could be an area to strongly promote to show customers how different your store is.
If customers have an easier time of it, they don't need to ask the staff as many questions. (Of course, many people won't even bother to ask, they'll just forego the purchase if they have a problem.) Happier customers make bulk sections jobs much more pleasant. While the results of these efforts may not be directly quantifiable, you will notice the difference as sales grow, customer satisfaction increases, and staff frustration drops.
Adam Fischler is manager of the bulk department at La Montanita Co-op in Alburquerque. N.M.