Bulk Nation And The Frill-Free Customizable Grocery Future

Some things customers will always need — and always need a lot of: paper towels, Windex, garlic powder. And buying as much as possible whenever possible will usually be money well-spent. Wholesale clubs, like Costco and Sam’s, are built almost entirely around this concept. At the point at which one accepts that they are always going to want cheese puffs, the only sensible thing to do (other than considering a new diet) is buying them in five-pound drums.

But the average kitchen is a diverse place, and for all the regular staples in use, most customers also have the hall of weird one-offs — the ingredients they use a handful of times a year that sit in the back of cabinets waiting for their day to shine. The consumer might just need a pinch or a dash, but most stores don’t sell in pinches or dashes. There is a container, and that’s what the customer buys. Either they learn to cook more dishes that call for it or resign themselves to seeing this item in their pantry a lot.

But Bulk Nation had a radical idea about fixing that problem. What if it just let consumers buy exactly what they wanted and no more? This was the founding question for the alternative grocery company when it first opened in Sarasota, Florida, in 2013. Was it possible build a business where customers could buy a pinch here, a scoop there?

“We have more than 3,000 items available on our shelves,” Bulk Nation President Clay Donato noted, “and we mean it when we say customers can buy whatever they want. You can buy 10 pounds of coffee. You can buy just a pound. If a customer wants just a bean, we’ll sell them that.” 

The store is fairly simply in concept and something of a throwback to the general stores of the early 1900s with a self-service update: Customers find their desired products, scoop (or spoon) them out, write down the bin number the product came from and go up and pay.

Among the main benefits consumers get are savings — largely, Donato noted, because they are not paying for packaging but rather the goods themselves. And, he noted, customers who are coming to Bulk Nation are also going to experience a much wider range of goods than they might otherwise.

“Ninety percent of our products are unique,” he noted, with 30 varieties of flour per store, 20 different blends of exotic rice, international candies and even a variety of honey choices — all stored in heated vats so customers can serve themselves more easily.

“Everything is fresh, too. Products go straight from the truck to the shelf.”

On average, Bulk Nation stores are about 4,000–5,000 square feet, and the stock is similar in each location — though customized for the local audience. Dry goods rule the day — bean and soup mixes, cereals and grains, chocolates, dried fruit, drink mixes and protein powder, no sugar added products, coffee, tea, etc. — though fresh produce is also featured. 

Donato noted that, though the idea sounds a bit odd — especially to those unfamiliar with the concept — in fact, bulk shopping is a much more normal commerce experience than most Americans realize, as well as being a more efficient one.

“In Europe and other parts of the world, bulk shopping is very popular,” he said. “That’s how most people shop — everything you buy is loose.”

And perhaps, pushed by Bulk Nation’s efforts, it can be a popular way to shop here, too, since the small grocery concern is working hard at expanding quite aggressively. There are currently five Bulk Nation stores open and operating in Florida, and the goal is for that number to have quadrupled to 20 by the end of 2017.

And there is forward motion on that, with two new Florida stores opening in the next few weeks: Kissimmee later this month and Tarpon Springs after that.

“We’re looking at opening a St. Cloud store early next year,” said Donato.

The chain will also open five new stores in Orlando through 2017 under a franchise agreement and anticipates opening locations in Jacksonville, South Florida and Oklahoma as well.