Will the experience of bulk foods shopping translate to e-commerce?
- Bulk Nation, a bulk retailer based in Tampa, Florida, is the latest grocery seller to add an online component, according to a press release, and now sells food items via the company’s website at bulknationusa.com. Bulk Nation, founded in 2013, offers more than 3,000 specialty bulk food items such as dried fruits, nuts, flours and spices, coffees, teas, ancient grains, local raw honey, candies, vegan, non-GMO and organic products. The company operates nine stores throughout the Sunshine State, with two more locations in the works.
- In the statement, Bulk Nation President Clay Donato called the online shop, “A momentous era for our company. We are excited to launch this new store and reach customers nationwide who are ready to experience the thrill of shopping hundreds of popular and hard to find products.”
- Bulk Nation will offer free shipping within the contiguous U.S. on purchases of $70 or more to celebrate the grand opening of the new online store.
Bulk Nation touts both the hard-to-find food items it sells, and the fact that customers can buy whatever amount they want. Shoppers can even bring in their own containers to stores to fill with items they are buying to cut back even more on environmental waste.
In The Shelby Report, Donato said Bulk Nation aims to please younger customers, who are loyal to retailers they see as socially responsible. Bulk buying both cuts down on waste in packaging and food because people buy what they like, he emphasized. Millennials want fresh foods, and by shopping from bins, customers can see what they are buying. Donato also says millennials prefer shopping in smaller stores, giving Bulk Nation a boost over big-box outfits like Costco. Bulk Nation opened its first brick-and-mortar store in 2014, grew to three by 2016, and is now on the cusp of operating 11 stores in Florida.
The sustainability aspect of bulk shopping is likely to be important to consumers. About two-thirds of global customers will spend more on a product if it comes from a sustainable brand, as cited in Nielsen's 2015 Global Corporate Sustainability Report. Three out four millennials said they’d pay more for green products, and 81% of young adults surveyed said they expect their favorite companies to make public declarations about sustainability efforts. Having a bulk department, retail analysts say, is important for a store to showcase both a premium and natural ethos.
Bulk Nation’s competition for millennial dollars could be niche sites, but there are no large online retailers who offer the bulk foods buying experience. Many online retailers with bulk sections, like Boxed.com, concentrate on warehouse club-style packages of CPG products.
However, the appeal of bulk buying could be lost in translation to ecommerce. While consumers flock to stores to see the large bulk bins full of food, evaluate the contents inside, and physically scoop them out, those aspects don't exist in online shopping. Bulk Nation's website shows pictures of each product, but the experience of seeing, smelling and feeling the item is not there. Not only could the loss of the tactile experience turn shoppers off, but online shopping may also take away the spur-of-the-moment impulse buys in a bulk department, when a consumer sees something new and intriguing worth trying.
Additionally, consumers need to trust that Bulk Nation gets the right product for them. While ecommerce order mishaps do happen, it's usually easier for the consumer to know he received the right item when it's in a package. Bulk Nation offers 20 different varieties of oats, and if the consumer needs a blend that is nut-free or certified gluten-free, he is placing a lot of trust in the hands of order fulfillment.
With millennials increasingly turning to the web to buy groceries, it makes sense for Bulk Nation to attempt to reach customers living beyond Florida’s borders, and a company website may be popular with its core customers. But it remains to be seen if consumers will want to buy in bulk when they aren't the ones scooping things out of the bins.