Everything You Need to Know About Buying in Bulk

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Heading to the bulk section of your grocery store doesn’t just allow you to skip the packaging when purchasing pantry staples. It also dramatically shrinks the carbon and energy footprint of your meals, as bulk goods require less transportation before arriving at the grocery store.

But let’s be honest: Between lugging your own containers to the supermarket and weighing out each item you purchase, buying in bulk can seem downright annoying. Even here at Earth911, many of our staffers say they’d love to try bulk but feel it would be too much of an added hassle for them.

To satisfy our curiosity about just how tricky bulk-buying really is, we sat down with a team of experts and got to the bottom of this alternative shopping tactic.

And, after all of our research, we’re pleased to let you in on a little secret: Even for the laziest among us, buying in bulk really isn’t that hard.

We know, we were surprised too. But after arming ourselves with knowledge and a few reusable shopping bags, we were set to take on the bulk section. Ready to do the same? Read on to finally put all those qualms to rest and give bulk-buying a try — saving money, reducing waste and shrinking the footprint of your nightly meals.

1. Getting started in the bulk aisle

“I can see how [bulk-buying] can be intimidating at first,” Shane Valentine, chef, author and chef instructor for Whole Foods Market, told Earth911. “We don’t normally shop this way. So, when something is not in a package we’re sort of like ‘What? Do I have to weigh it or what do I have to do?'”

Despite the knee-jerk reaction that may lead us away from buying non-packaged items, Valentine and the rest of our experts assure us that bulk-buying really isn’t much different from picking up groceries from the rest of the store. To break it down simply, the bulk-buying process is made up of four steps:

  1. Fill your container with the bulk food of your choice (you may have to complete one more step if you’re bringing your own container, but we’ll get to that later).
  2. Label your purchase with the four-digit PLU code provided by the store.
  3. Bring your bulk purchase to the register to be weighed.
  4. Pay for your purchase and go!

It’s really not that different from buying produce, and everybody buys produce. … It may take a tiny bit more effort, but it can become both fun and well worth the effort.” –Clint Landis, a Bulk is Green Council board member and chief marketing officer for Frontier Co-op.

2. The container conundrum

While bringing your own containers like glass jars or plastic storage sets helps you reduce waste while buying in bulk, it’s not your only option. Reusable cloth bags are a simple, easy-to-carry alternative to bulkier picks.

And don’t be afraid to use the storage options your local store provides. Whether it’s a small container or a plastic bag, the choices in your local bulk aisle will be far less waste-intensive than standard food packaging. You can reuse bags and containers multiple times before you recycle them.

“If you forget your containers at home and you use the ones that the store provides … at the end of the day it’s going be way greener to do that than to buy a package,” Valentine said.

If you decide to bring your own bag or container, stop by the register first to have the container weighed. A store attendant will mark it with its tare weight, so you’ll only be charged for the food you’re buying, not the container. After you get used to the concept of buying in bulk, try to train yourself to leave a few reusable containers in your car or desk for impromptu shopping trips. Much like getting into the habit of using a reusable shopping bag, it may take you a few trips before it becomes second nature. But after you get over that initial hump, coming to the store prepared becomes business as usual, our experts said.

It will be a little awkward at first, but if you just stick to it, not only will you save a ton of money but it’s also going to be way better for the environment.” –Shane Valentine, chef and author

Bins of coffee beans for sale

Photo by Andrew Spencer on Unsplash

3. Getting over the ‘sticker shock’

When you head to the bulk aisle, one thing you may notice right away are the high prices posted on some items. Oregano for $30 a pound? Sounds a bit pricey!

Calm down, our experts say, and look a little closer. Posted prices are for one pound of product, which is typically way more than you will purchase at once. For example, if you filled a standard 1-ounce spice jar with dried oregano from the bulk section, that purchase will cost less than $2, compared to a $6 price tag on oregano from the spice aisle.

“Typically, bulk foods are 89 percent cheaper than packaged foods,” said Bulk is Green Council member Ellen Bouchard, citing a 2012 study conducted by the council in partnership with Portland State University.

Buying in bulk also helps you control portion size, reducing waste and saving money, added Bouchard, who also serves as brand manager for Frontier Co-op a distributor of bulk spices.

“If we just look at things differently, packaged food is way more expensive per pound,” Valentine said. “You fill up a little container of a spice, bring it up to the front and when it’s literally under a dollar, you get it. It’s instantaneous, and now you’re hooked.”

4. Learning to buy what you need

After you get the hang of the bulk-buying basics, like getting the tare weight of your containers and having purchases weighed at checkout, you can start making the most of what the bulk section has to offer. In addition to skipping the packaging, buying in bulk also allows you to directly control portion size – meaning you’re no longer paying too much for excess food you don’t need. Landis and Bouchard coined the phrase “buy a pinch or a pound,” and when it comes to bulk shopping, that edict couldn’t be more true.

When you think of bulk, the first thing that comes to mind is Costco, and it’s the direct opposite. You could literally buy one peppercorn if you wanted to.” –Shane Valentine, chef and author

The next time you’re planning a recipe, bring a few small containers and a set of measuring spoons to the bulk aisle, Valentine suggests. Measure out spices you need for your recipe, and pour them right into your containers. By following this simple step, you’ll never end up paying $5 or more for a whole jar of a spice you may never even use again.

Beyond that, purchase bulk coffee, tea, grains and dried fruits in portions you will realistically use before your next trip to the grocery store. You’ll save money, your foods will be fresher when you use them and nothing will go to waste, our experts said.

5. Set a goal and get started

If you’re new to bulk-buying, start by setting an attainable goal for yourself until you get into the swing of things. For example, pledge to begin buying one type of food in bulk, such as spices, grains or flours. Once you’re used to it, move on to the rest of the bulk section.

If the bulk selection at your local grocer is only so-so, use these databases from the National Coop Grocers and Independent Natural Food Retailers Association to discover new bulk-buying options near you.

Still unconvinced that bulk-buying will help you save time and money while reducing waste? Check out this fun video from the Bulk is Green Council, and follow two shoppers as they browse the bulk aisle and the rest of the grocery store. You may be surprised by how much time and money the bulk-buyer saved compared to her companion.

Want More Smart Shopping Tips? Check Out: Supermarket Secret: You Can Buy Half a Cabbage

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Mary Mazzoni

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