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Is the Bulk Bin Really That Much Cheaper?

Is the Bulk Bin Really That Much Cheaper?

Anyone who has done a great deal of their shopping at health food stores, Whole Foods, or even Costco knows that bulk bin shopping, while often times overwhelming, can also be a financially smart decision. Just take a look at the price of bay leaves from the bulk bin vs. how much they would be if you purchased them in one of those wee glass jars (it is about a 40 percent price difference on average). Oatmeal is cheaper, nuts are seemingly cheaper, and popcorn is way cheaper, and you could buy as much, or as little, as you desire. So as the hoards of consumers shuffle in front of the bank of bulk bins, looking for twisty ties and those 6-digit bin numbers, we should all feel that sense of collective goodness that we are getting a consistently good deal. But how good of a deal is it really?

According to a report by the (appropriately named) Bulk Is Green Council, a bulk industry trade group, they claimed they held independent research showing that customers can save an average of 89 percent by shopping in the bulk aisle, which is a pretty astounding figure. The trade group got students (aka cheap statisticians) to venture out among the bulk bins and collect data. The students compared bulk and packaged prices for organic products at 12 stores in the Portland, Ore., area, from co-ops to national supermarket chains. They found that packaged versions were, on average, 89 percent more expensive than bulk counterparts. But, according to NPR, who lent a skeptical eye to the “study,” that translates to a savings of just 56 percent when you switch from packaged products to the bulk bins. An independent study, from the original independent study, commissioned by NPR found that an average savings of only 21 percent on organic products at a comparable Washington D.C. store – averaging across all bulk products at both stores, savings dropped to 14 percent. Still, not so shabby.

But really, it all boils down to what you purchase and the built in savings from that purchase. Rolled oats are a really exceptional deal in bulk, chocolate covered almonds, not so much. There are also other incentives, as well as drawbacks to buying bulk. On the incentive angle you are likely saving on needless packaging and have the opportunity to see, and sometimes taste (if you want to break the rules), what you are set to purchase before you actually plunk down any cash. On the downside, depending on the standards of your local bulk bin outlet, the offerings can be less than fresh. No one really knows how long it has been since they were cleaned and/or sanitized, and a batch of rancid nuts or coffee beans can easily ruin the smell and flavor of anything that comes in contact with the oils of the offending nuts or beans. Don’t get me started on people digging their hands into bulk bins.

Still, bulk believers swear by the scoop and twist tie lifestyle. Do you bulk? If so, what are the inherent advantages? Have you ever had a bad bulk experience? Is there anything you just would never buy in bulk?

Read more: Appetizers & Snacks, Basics, Blogs, Following Food, Food, Reduce, Recycle & Reuse, , , ,

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.


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3:15PM PDT on Aug 18, 2015

Thank you Eric.

10:22AM PDT on Jun 21, 2015

Thanks Eric.

5:24AM PST on Feb 9, 2014


9:30AM PST on Feb 17, 2013

Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't. A major thing you have to look at is: are the bulk items going to go bad before you finish them? I actually have a small note book that can fit in my pocket that has a bunch of simple mathematical equations in it that i use to find if it is cheaper to buy in bulk for some items (price per pound) or not.

Judy: be careful, some syrups say they are maple syrup from maple trees but most are white sugar and brown sugar that has been mixed with water, that has a similar color and taste.

8:23AM PST on Dec 23, 2012

it depends on what we're planning to buy, but the picture you paint is one that doesn't exist here in the uk. instead, our bulk buy purchases have been made through recently finding a great website that deals with food that is close to or has approached it's use by date. the weight allowed for reasonable postage is 25kg. we have gotten many packets of cous cous, breakfast bars and drinks to name a few and have ended up with bulk buys that will see us for months worth of meals that would cost mere pence! these are packaged products and so no nasty hands in 'bins' can even be an image that enters my mind. the cous cous, we got a case full, around 48 packets for £1! normally in the supermarket, that same packet of cous cous would cost around £1.50. yeah, so let's see which one i want to choose and which version is cheaper!

2:35PM PST on Dec 11, 2012

don't buy in bulk for the money savings, but better for the environment......

8:22AM PDT on Jul 31, 2012

Interesting. There is no bulk food store in town, aside from the pricier health food store bins so I have to go out of town to buy bulk. Have done so on many occasions and often it is less expensive and the stores that have a lot of customers generally have the freshest product available.
Love to buy various things such as kasha, chocolate covered almonds, nuts and quinoa at the bulk food store.

3:58PM PDT on Jun 20, 2012


11:01PM PDT on May 11, 2012

For storage, I like to use my bulk food as decoration. I label the backs of the jars (just so i don't get the flours mixed up) and just enjoy the textures and colors. I also don't put them in order (all the beans together) I put them all over the place and actually group them together by size instead. I have rice flour in a 2 pint jar, but my all purpose flour, brown rice & black beans are in much larger ones.

12:40AM PDT on May 9, 2012

Spices are a real bargain in the bulk section.

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