The benefits of buying bulk
- Savings. Perhaps the biggest advantage to shopping bulk is a lower grocery bill. “It’s much more cost effective to buy in bulk,” says Ben Litjen, bulk foods specialist at the Whole Foods Market in Boulder, Colorado. Many bulk items are cheaper per ounce than their prepackaged counterparts. For example, at Whole Foods, organic steel-cut oats cost 6 cents per ounce when purchased bulk compared with 10 cents per ounce when packaged; almond butter costs 31 cents per ounce bulk and 44 cents per ounce in a jar; and crystallized ginger costs 37 cents per ounce bulk compared with 68 cents per ounce packaged. If you purchased standard amounts of each of these items, you’d pay half the amount (saving nearly $6) by going with bulk. Spices are particularly good buys, says Litjen. “Customers can purchase just about any spice at about a fraction of the price it would cost bottled.” Plus, he adds, if you only need 1 tablespoon of a spice you’ll use once, why waste $5 to $10 on a whole bottle?
- Variety. One of the myths of shopping bulk is that you’ll sacrifice variety. In fact, the opposite is often true. Many stores carry a wider variety of items, such as granolas and grains, in bulk. “We also carry a lot of alternative grains in bulk for people who want to be wheat-free,” says Chris Jordan, assistant store director at the Greenlake PCC Natural Market in Seattle, the largest natural food cooperative in the United States. And at some stores, including PCC, staples, such as dried beans and trail mixes, are available only in bulk. Some stores have so many bulk products to choose from it can be overwhelming. PCC, for example, carries more than 300 bulk items, while Whole Foods carries more than 600. Many shoppers aren’t aware that they can also buy specialty items in the bulk-bin section, such as whole-wheat pastry flour, biscotti, and spiced nuts, without all the fancy (and expensive) packaging.
- Quality. You may also have wondered about the freshness and overall quality of bulk items. At PCC Natural Markets and Whole Foods, the majority of bulk products are identical to their packaged counterparts. Plus, explains Litjen, “we go through so much product that freshness is the same if not better than in the package.” Many bulk items are sold so quickly that bins are completely renewed in anywhere from a couple hours to—at most—a week, says Jordan. Granted, not all stores have the foot traffic of a large Whole Foods store, but even smaller stores have a good way to ensure bulk-bin products don’t go stale. “Bins are designed to fill from the top and dispense through the bottom,” says Litjen. This means there is a natural progression of older product being sold before newer product. As for bins that use scoops, they aren’t refilled until empty, explains Jordan, so there’s never any old product sitting on the bottom.
In 2000, 32.2 percent of solid waste in America consisted of containers and packaging. Earth-friendly. Of course, for many environmentally conscious shoppers, the most important benefit of shopping bulk is the reduction in packaging waste. Despite the dramatic increase in the amount of recyclable food packages during the last few decades, packaging is still a significant contributor to the planet’s landfills. In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that in 2000, 32.2 percent of solid waste consisted of containers and packaging—about 74,730 thousand tons—including those from food products. Plus, recycled or not, packaging costs energy and resources in its manufacturing. “Think about all the boxes and cartons that are in the grocery aisles,” says Jordan. “All that gets thrown away once you use the products.”