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?