Rewind the clocks to a year ago. Many grocery retailers in America featured entire aisles devoted to bulk merchandising for coffee, candy, nuts and other single-use bulk items. It was a perfect solution for both retailers and customers—retailers knew that bulk items are being rotated first in-first out for optimal freshness, and customers got to choose the exact amount of bulk items they want.
Then came the COVID-19 pandemic.
Germ hysteria is at a high point. Any retail section with a perceived high risk of infection is met with suspicion and avoidance by over 60% of customers shopping in stores today. Most retailers have closed down their bulk product offerings in favor of returning to prepackaged goods.
Catherine Conway, who curates zero-waste bulk aisles for corporate grocers in the United Kingdom, believes the real risk is less BYO and more “customers’ repeated touching of the same equipment (gravity bin and scoop bin handles, scales, etc.).”
“We need to remember there are plenty of similar risks even in packaged food. For example, an infected customer could pick up a can of beans, put it back on the shelf, and that’s the same level of transmission risk as a BYO container).”
How bulk merchandising currently looks
Self-contained gravity bulk merchandising bins are still a viable option, as they are incredibly safe and hygienic. Customers use single-use containers or bags to fill their items. Shared touchpoints on bulk gravity bins are minimal and can be managed effectively by adding hygiene stations.
Open-air, scoop-bin, bulk merchandising sections will need to evolve. Customer perception is they are easy to contaminate. Scoop bins have multiple contact points, provide customers open access to all merchandise in a bin and feature common use utensil scoops/tongs.
Short term evolution: Hygiene stations and high-visibility signage
First and foremost, retailers need to begin transitioning hygiene stations and single-use utensils into the bulk merchandising area. Making handwash stations, plastic gloves, single-use containers and single-use utensils available and accessible will ease customer anxiety and make them feel safe when shopping and selecting items.
Enhanced signage will help to make customers aware that bulk bins are NSF compliant, hygienic, and dishwasher safe. Additional signage can be used to direct traffic flow, highlight promotions and new items and mark hand wash stations and utensil dispensing areas.
Long term evolution: Transition to full gravity dispensing and automated sensing
Where is bulk merchandising heading? The short answer is towards gravity feed dispensing. Another design improvement focus is limiting as many common touchpoints as possible by introducing automation into bulk bin systems.
Integrating electronic scales and weighted sensors into bulk retail displays will allow customers to select the exact amounts they want to purchase but reduce any possibility of contamination. Shoppers can choose pre-set amounts and checkout once their entire bulk selection is complete.
In summary, the face of bulk merchandising may be changing slightly, but the time and money-saving ideas behind it are still proven effective. They can yet be realized by maintaining safe social distancing processes and setting up hygiene areas in the section. Over time, retailers should consider transitioning all of their bulk product selection into safe, self-contained gravity feed systems.
This post is sponsored by Siffron