- November 8, 2013
Clay Donato doesn't relish saying no.
That's why his business, Bulk Nation, has an insatiable appetite to grow its product offerings. The list varies from raw sugar and pumpkin spice cappuccino mix to gluten-free pasta and cashew nut butter. The store, on U.S. 41 in Sarasota, just south of Bee Ridge Road, added 400 products in its first five months, going from 1,200 to 1,600. Bulk Nation, says Donato, now adds 50 to 100 new items a week.
“We are constantly bringing in new products,” says Donato, president at Bulk Nation. “There are always things we miss that customers suggest we add. A lot of the time customers are your greatest intel.”
Still, there's more to Bulk Nation than its ever-expanding product list. A second Bulk Nation, in Brandon, is expected to open by the end of the year, for one. And a franchise plan, starting with Florida, is also in the works. Says Donato: “We are motivated to grow this into a national chain pretty quickly.”
A Canadian-born former pro tennis player who was a two-time All-American at the University of North Carolina, Donato runs the business under four investors, whom he declines to identify. He says sales are up steadily since the store opened in February, validating the market need for a wide variety of bulk products in the same place. A customer, on average, spends $15 to $20 during a Bulk Nation visit, says Donato.
Plus, that customer base will soon add some muscle, according to some national data. A 2011 report from The Freedonia Group, for instance, projects bulk purchases in the U.S. food and beverage industry will increase 4.3% a year through 2015, to a total of $1.3 billion.
Regional and local grocery chains have pounced on the trend. Chains like Publix and Richard's Foodporium have expanded bulk options, while Whole Foods and The Fresh Market have had large bulk selections for years.
That large-scale competition, however, doesn't daunt Donato. Instead, he says the more that's out there, the better it is for the Bulk Nation concept. He plans to outdo the competition by offering more variety. He works with up to 15 suppliers to stock the store, though even with customer input Donato says there's a healthy element of trial and error in the product list.
Donato has been surprised, for example, on how fast gluten-free products sell. Some organic products move fast, too. The 4,000-square-foot store's product list includes candy, coffee beans, flour, honey, nuts and spices. There's also a line of pet food and home cleaning supplies.
No matter the product, Donato says he and the staff keep close watch of what sells and what doesn't to maintain freshness. “Our turns are very quick,” Donato says, “so we are constantly refilling our containers.”
Donato was born and raised in Toronto, where he lived until he was 12. He then moved to Bradenton, where he went to school and played tennis at the IMG Academy under legendary coach Nick Bollettieri. He played professionally for a year after UNC, before he switched his focus to business. Bulk Nation, he says, has deep potential. “It's a common form of shopping in some parts of the world,” Donato says. “But it hasn't really caught on here yet.”