The BIG Scoop

They don't call me "Binhead" for nothing -- I believe in Bulk! Unfortunately, word on the aisles is that Bulk has reached its plateau -- sales have flattened -- interest is dying.

I could sit back and play my violin in respect. Or I could polish up my big scoop and face the challenge. I choose the latter. I wish to rally support from other bulk enthusiasts and pass along to them my years of accumulated knowledge of the bulk section.

In the past several years, I have attended the Natural Products Expos and been mortified by the lack of "natural foods." To me, there are natural foods and there is everything else that is processed from natural foods. What better way to offer natural foods than in bulk!

Round and round they go...

To maintain the integrity of bulk foods, we must implement precise techniques and have a keen understanding of the delicacy of the product. Bulk foods are a cyclical product, similar to produce. Basically the products -- grains, fruits, legumes, etc. -- are planted, nurtured to maturity, harvested, stored, bagged and delivered. It's a yearly cycle, and each product needs to be managed as "perishable."

Proper management of bulk foods requires certain skills to ensure the cus-tomer's trust in the product. These skills range from knowledge of product, to problem solving, to creative marketing, to education, to not being afraid of getting your hands dirty!

First of all, it is important to KNOW your product. Become familiar with the look and smell and feel of the product. Don't receive a product that doesn't meet your standards. Occasionally, distributors will send out product that has been returned from another customer and is beyond its prime. Watch for this, and don't hesitate to return it yourself.

It is of the utmost importance that we only stock the freshest and the cleanest product available. Most bulk product (especially bulk grains) are stamped with the "Julian calendar" code. This is a three digit number corresponding to the days of the calendar -- January first is 001, October 1 is 274. Become familiar with this packaging date, and determine a reasonable cut-off. Personally, I don't like backstocking product that sits in its bulk bag for longer than 3 months, depending on the product.

Occasionally, the product will change from grower to grower. A good example of this is green lentils. Sometimes they will appear really green, and other times not so green. It's just a different variety or batch rather than lesser quality. The rule here is to not mix these two. The BIGGER rule is to not stock one on top of the other. Customers want to see uniformity of product. Wait until the first one runs out before stocking the other. Maintain congruity in your products. This assures the customers won't question your motives or stocking practices. Preserve the integrity of the product by not cutting corners. Our customers need to be able to trust us and the products they are buying.

Stockers know best

To be proficient with bulk foods means you must have full knowledge of all the products you stock in your bulk section. Most often, bulk foods (such as grains and legumes) don't come with instructions or directions, so it is imperative that your staff either have such knowledge or have easy access to such knowledge.

Ideally, everyone on your bulk staff should be able to field ALL queries that customers have. While this level of customer service should be the highest priority, sometimes this is just not possible. There are a couple of solutions.

Assign someone on your staff, preferably someone who spends a lot of time working your retail floor, to become knowledgeable about your bulk section. Loan them reference materials on the various products, and have them generate signage for your bins or handouts for customers. If customers don't know what to do with quinoa, they're certainly not going to purchase it. Give this staff person a title, perhaps "consumer educator." The more time such staff have to further their knowledge, the more helpful they will be for your customers.

Another idea is to offer a reference library dedicated solely to bulk foods and specifically the products you carry. Allow customers easy access to this area, and arrange it so they feel comfortable browsing through the reference materials. KNOWLEDGE of bulk foods SELLS bulk foods.

Train your staff never to use the words "I don't know" when a customer asks for specific information. We LIKE curious customers. Curious customers become knowledgeable customers and, in turn, buy bulk foods because they are are familiar with bulk foods. If a staff person can't answer a particular question, it's perfectly acceptable to say, "I can't answer that question, but let me take your name and number, and I or someone else will research that and call you with the information you seek." And then, of course, follow through with this action.

Bulk -- a pretty picture?

We bulk aficionados face constant competition with the pretty, glitzy, wordy, shiny, cutesy packages that line our neatly faced aisles. By adopting certain tactics, we can face this challenge with ease!

First of all, know that "cleanliness sells." Just having the proper bins isn't enough. Bulk bins demand proper maintenance. At the Arcata Co-op, we take about 45 minutes each morning to "open the store," using a consumer's eye to create a clean and sanitary feel in the department. There is nothing that turns customers away more than a dirty bulk foods department.

We use necessary tools of the trade -- feather dusters (not any flimsy ones either), clean towels, vacuums, brooms, dust mops. We pay attention to areas where those dreaded bugs can harbor. And once we feel the task is complete, we stand back with that critical consumer eye and ask ourselves, "What more can I do to make this department really shine?" There's always that finishing touch that can inspire even your most persnickety customer to feel confident while making their purchases.

What REALLY bugs me

Strange that I am, I am grateful to see living breathing bugs in my bulk products. But I know I don't share that joy with many of my customers. A living bug implies the product has not been treated with toxic substances. More realistically, it also implies a potential problem of infestation, and this is an important facet of proper bulk management!

The existence of the Indian meal moth is our biggest challenge. Her sole purpose in life is to reproduce, and since she is a protein borer, she targets grains and cereals. The Indian meal moth MUST find a comfortable spot to do her thing, and she requires 24 hours of stillness. The knowledge of bug cycles, the use of pheromone traps and lures, and constant cleaning are our greatest defense.

We also use a method of "aerate and rotate." Aeration simply involves moving the product each day. Take a few minutes to stir each bulk bin. This motion upsets the moth's design to lay her eggs, and if we prevent this from happening, she will die.

Words of advice: Never accept a product from a distributor that contains bugs. Work with your distributor to develop a system in dealing with buggy product. Many times your distributor doesn't want the buggy product returned to their warehouse. In this case, FREEZE the product and then discard it to the compost.

A bunch of "folderol"

"Folderol" is a word I use to represent how we backstock partial bags of grain. It's really "fold and roll," but the concept of "folderol" pretty much sums it up. Partial bags of grain are a bulk manager's nightmare. Once that bag has been opened and product exposed to the elements, its integrity has been compromised. It becomes vulnerable to critter infestation. "Folderol" is this: 1) Take the partial bag and shake the remaining contents to the bottom. 2) Fold the sides in, all the way to the bottom. 3) Roll the bag down from the top. And 4) seal with wide tape. Make sure these bags are the first to be stocked. Always monitor your backstock with a keen eye. Watch for signs of age or deterioration of product.

Bin there, done that

It is reassuring to know that there is a wide variety of bulk bin manufacturers out there, all supporting bulk awareness. Bulk managers and bin system manufacturers alike share the common denominator of our allegiance to bulk foods. Recently, I was offered the challenge of redesigning our bulk food section, eliminating our 25-year-old custom wood bins and replacing them with new ones. I took the time to thoroughly research ALL the bulk system displays, and based on the needs of the department, the feedback from the customers, and standards set by our local health department, chose a system that met all my requirements.

There are some basic questions to ask yourself when choosing a bulk bin. Is it attractive? Is it safe? Is it easily washable? Is it easy to handle? Am I confident in its durability? Will my customers appreciate its features? And of course, how much does it cost? Make a list of your department needs, taking into consideration customers, store workers, your checkbook, and of course your local health department. Do your homework, think of the future of bulk foods, and choose wisely.

The Incredible Bulk!

Bulk foods are an added attraction to any retail, offering quality products at a reasonable price. An added bonus is the fact that in a well managed and efficiently run bulk department, you can draw 10-15% of store sales, averaging a solid 40% margin. It is imperative that the department not only be developed to meet the needs of your customers but that it be managed well. It's worth some additional payroll to promote a bulk section. Bulk creates interest from customers. It allows them to be part of a good thing. It keeps us healthy and wise!

Join me in my enthusiasm in bringing bulk food back into the mainstream market. Together we can meet our challenges, face those glitzy packages, swat those bugs, and continue to maintain the integrity of bulk foods!

See other articles from this issue: #079 November - December - 1998