Step One: Get to know the bulk aisle. If you’ve never shopped for bulk items before, it’s helpful to get to know your local aisle first. Some stores will even give tours upon request. Most bulk aisles are arranged in logical categories—snack items in one area, baking items in another—so it should not be too baffling. Note that you probably will come across some unusual items.
For example, you’ll be happy to learn that those little black shriveled things are not, in fact, bits of shredded car tire but are hijiki seaweed. And that mysterious grainlike item that looks like chicken feed? It’s actually quinoa—a South American plant seed renowned for its high protein content.
As you’re wandering the aisles, it helps to keep the following questions in mind: What grocery items that you normally buy packaged can you replace with bulk? What specialty items does the store carry in bulk for your occasional needs? Are some bulk items stored in a separate area, such as the cosmetics aisle or a refrigerator?
Next, it’s time to do some price comparisons (see “The Scoop on Best Buys” for tips) and gather a few samples. Yes, some stores will allow you to sample from the bins, while others prefer you purchase a small amount to try, so ask an employee about store policy. And if you’re not sure what you might like, ask. “We love to give recommendations,” says Litjen.
Step Two: Prepare at home. Successful trips to the bins actually start before you leave home. Most bulk aisles will provide plastic bags, but collecting and reusing bags from other trips gives you the satisfaction of further reducing packaging waste. Try keeping a stash of reusable plastic bags inside your cloth grocery sacks so they’re always on hand. Also, keep in mind that store-bought containers for nut butters or oils usually cost extra, so consider bringing your own, such as glass jars or plastic containers with airtight lids. (To optimize cupboard storage space at home, use square rather than round jars.)
It’s also helpful to keep a running list of items you’re out of, so you won’t forget what you need when you’re confronted by the wall of grains, flours, nuts, candies, dried fruits, and cereals. And, if you’re shopping for a specific recipe, be sure to jot down the amounts you need before you get to the store.
Step Three: Ready, set, shop. It’s time to hit the store—but before you start shopping, have your empty containers weighed at customer service or by a cashier. They’ll write down their tare (empty) weight on a piece of tape or label. That way, when you return to the register with filled containers, you pay only for the weight of the product itself.
Now, you’re ready for the bins—but what about those awkward levers and scoops? If you’re afraid you’ll make a mess, “be bold and ask for help,” encourages Jordan from Seattle’s PCC. “It’s much easier than you think it’s going to be.”
“Some customers do have a hard time with the peanut butter and the scoop bins,” says Litjen. “Others don’t know how to work the dispensers and get stuff all over the floor.” Just keep the following in mind: If you’re using a dispenser be sure your bag is in the right place to catch the product. Then, pull the lever gently for a slow release. Also, when obtaining items that don’t have a specific scoop attached to them (such as spices) make sure that you are using a scoop labeled “organic” for organic products. This keeps organic products contaminant-free. Finally, use a pen to write the product number of the item you’ve chosen so the checkout clerk will know how to charge you for your purchase (see “How to shop like a bulk-bin pro”).
And remember that in the bulk section, the old adage “haste makes waste” is particularly true. “One of the biggest pet peeves we have here at Whole Foods is people taking product out of the bin, deciding not to buy it, and leaving it there,” says Litjen. That product ends up in the trash, he explains, because they can’t put handled food back in the bins for health reasons. The lesson? Come to the bulk aisle prepared, knowing the items you want. And take the time to be sure you’re pulling the right lever.