Monday, April 27, 2015

Different Types Of Bulk Buying- And Their Pros and Cons

I write a million times about bulk buying, bulk buying, bulk buying. I can't even count how many times I've mentioned it on my blog, but that's because I'm super stoked about it. And I hope after my recent post about how to get super healthy food on a super tight budget, where I mentioned how much I save by buying bulk, people who hadn't even give a thought to bulk buying before are now open to considering it as a possible option.

But you know what I have been realizing?

There's more than one definition of bulk buying, and there are many different ways to bulk buy.

So for you- when someone says bulk buying, what immediately comes to mind? For many, Costco or Sam's Club would come to mind, with their big ol' tubs of ketchup and giant sized packages of corn chips and extra large packages of diapers and toilet paper. For others, bulk bins at Whole Foods is what comes to mind. Not exactly the same thing, is it?

So, what exactly is bulk buying? Which one is it?

I think most people aren't even aware that there are at least 7 different types of bulk buying (of which I am aware), each with their own benefits and drawbacks. So, how do you know which type of bulk buying is best for you? Let's find out.

The Benefits and Drawbacks of Different Bulk Buying Options

Warehouse Clubs

Costco and Sam's Club (along with other similar type stores) are probably the most popular types of bulk buying in the US and similar. For those not familiar, these are large stores with large packaging of all sorts of items- not just food and groceries, but also electronics, toys, etc... But we'll just focus on food in this post.

The Benefits of shopping in such a store is the large variety of items available in just one place- from meat and fish to produce to canned goods to condiments, etc... it's like regular grocery shopping- just in bulk! So long as you have room to store it all- why not?
Another benefit is that these stores are easy to find- they seem to be all over, where ever you look, so it doesn't take so much effort.

The Drawbacks of shopping at these places is that you generally need to buy a membership in order to shop there. In addition to the cost of whatever it is you buy there, you have to factor in that membership fee (or the one time visitor's fee).
There is also the aspect that in many cases, the bulk items at these warehouse clubs are actually not particularly cheap- sometimes you'll find a great deal there, but very often the prices are just marginally cheaper than regular store bought items, and sometimes they are even more expensive than buying things not in bulk. You absolutely need to price compare per amount when buying at these warehouse clubs and not just buy something because it's there, and not just buy the larger item because you assume it is cheaper.
And this is where the membership fee aspect really comes to bite you- you don't necessarily want to be members of a few different warehouse clubs, so you're not going to compare the price at Costco vs Sam's Club for each item, and buy where it is cheaper, but just where you're a member. Or you are price comparing and buying each item where it is cheaper, but that also entails buying more than one membership... Or you feel that since you paid for the membership already, you might as well do all your shopping there and not actually price compare at all, because you want to make it worth your while to have gotten the membership.
By virtue of making there be a paid membership, they'll often make you end up being brand loyal... which is one of the things that you should try to avoid when trying to be frugal....
Last but not least- you might not have the money to lay out for large quantities of certain items- even if they are cheaper per pound, it often still is a very large amount upfront. If you don't have so much cash available to begin with, you might not be able to afford even the better deals at warehouse clubs, or you might end up putting it on the credit card which will cost you more in the long run.
If you want to start buying bulk, but don't have the spare cash- I recommend you read this post about how to bulk buy without any extra cash.

Bulk Bins

On the other end of the scale from warehouse clubs you have stores that sell things by weight, usually in bins or sacks that you scoop out and put into bags, and decide to take however much you want. Locally you can find bulk bins in health food stores, or health oriented grocery stores, or even at the open air market. I know in the US stores like Trader Joe's and Whole Foods have bulk bins, among other places.

The Benefits of shopping this way are many. First of all, the prices of items in bulk bins usually are lower than packaged items, even when you're comparing prices in the same store!
You can buy however much you want. You're also not required to get insanely large quantities of whatever you're buying in order to get the lower pricing like you usually have to do with bulk foods. If you just want a "regular amount", like a pound or two, you can get that amount- or you can get 10 pounds- whatever floats your boat. And if you want to try out something because you don't know how it is, you can get as little as you want- some stores have a lower limit- they won't let you get less than a certain amount (many local stores don't let you get less than 8 ounces of something)- but most stores you can get even tiny amounts. So if I just need 5 dried apricots for something, I only buy 5, and don't need to pay for a whole package of dried apricots (and end up eating it all, even though I just needed a few). Spices are one thing I especially enjoy buying this way, since sometimes there is a spice I rarely use, so I don't want to buy a large quantity of it if I just need it for one recipe- so I'll buy a tablespoon or two of that spice and that's it!
This is great for people short on cash, since there is no large initial outlay required like in most bulk purchases.
From an environmental perspective, many people appreciate this, since you're minimizing plastic packaging and contributions to landfills. Some stores allow you to bring your own containers from home to fill, so you can buy this way without using any disposable packaging whatsoever.
Bulk bins are moderately easy to find- they aren't necessarily advertised all over, so you can't just pick up a yellow pages to find a store with bulk bins in your area- but most areas have them, so these are pretty widely available.

The Drawbacks to this type of shopping method are not many, but they are significant.
Since they don't come with packaging and you have to package them yourself, if you don't store them correctly, they can get buggy or stale much more quickly.
If you have allergies, or gluten sensitivities, because of the nature of this method of selling, you often will have cross contamination from all sorts of other bins that are open in the area as well.
Also, while they often are cheaper than regular groceries, they sometimes aren't cheaper at all. You really have to price compare. There are some stuff that I never buy from the local bulk bins because they are more expensive than buying at the regular grocery store. And some things are cheaper than the regular grocery store, but not significantly so- it is much better to buy them from other bulk sources.

Business/Restaurant Suppliers

Now we're getting into the territory that is less commonly known, and certainly more challenging...
Restaurant/business suppliers are companies that sell things in bulk, but not to individuals, but rather to businesses, whether bakers or restaurants or other grocery stores. I haven't done this in the US, but Restaurant Depot is one of these types of stores in the US, and I'm sure there are many more that I don't know about. If you know you live local to me (I don't live in the US), feel free to email me so I can tell you about the restaurant/business supply store near us.

The Benefits of buying bulk this way are many. First of all, the prices at these types of stores are usually terrific. Usually, but not always. Make sure to price compare! At the local bakery supply store where I buy, most of the items are significantly cheaper than the grocery store (often even 10 times cheaper per pound), but not everything. Some things are the same as the regular grocery store, and some things are more expensive. Don't just buy assuming that it's a good deal.
Because it is in such large quantities at a time, it also saves lots of headaches and time because you don't need to go out to the store so often, and when there are good deals, they often are very ,very good, so you end up saving so much money.
Many of these places deliver your order to your door if you buy a large enough amount, so for people without cars, this is a huge perk, because getting bulk items without a car can be very tricky and often involves relying on lots of people or favors, since you can't really lug bulk foods around by bus.
Regarding membership- some of these places require membership, some don't. Restaurant depot does require membership, but it's free. The local store where I buy mine does not require membership.

The Drawbacks of buying bulk this way are also many. As I said, these companies are intended to sell to other businesses, so buying as an individual can be problematic. I noticed restaurant depot you need to be a member to buy there, and they only provide memberships to people with reseller permits or non profits. I haven't looked into it and if all restaurant supply companies have the same rules so I can't tell you what is available in the US. I know that the local bakery supply company was a little bit confused the first few times I tried buying from them, because they weren't used to dealing with individuals, and had a hard time understanding why I'd want to buy 50 lbs of many different things if it were just for myself, since there isn't really a local culture of bulk buying. However, they do allow me to buy as an individual. I can only speak from my own experience about how things are locally- I'm not sure if there are any workarounds in the US to also be able to buy from restaurant/bakery suppliers, or if there are different rules at different places, and some places will sell to individuals even if other places won't.
The other big drawback of buying bulk this way is that finding out about these places isn't exactly easy. I actually only know of one of these places local to me. There quite possibly are more, but this information is not easy to find at all.
There's also the added aspect that you need to have the money to lay out upfront in order to buy these types of things.

Produce Wholesalers

When my father made wine when we were kids, I remember him coming home with crates of grapes, that he bought from a produce wholesaler. He went out in the middle of the night to a place that sold produce, mainly to markets and restaurants. I recently bought a bunch of produce wholesale as well, many crates of it. ("What are we? A grocery store?" my husband asked me, completely baffled.) There are companies that sell produce by the crate, and you can also often buy things this way directly from farmers.

The Benefits of this type of shopping is mainly the price. You often will get rock bottom dollar for your produce this way.
Unfortunately, that is pretty much the only benefit- the rest are drawbacks,

The Drawbacks as I said, are many.
First of all, these places are not so accessible. Even finding places that sell produce by the crate/case is hard. Secondly, since many of these places are selling them fresh to restaurants or stores every day, they do so before the working day begins- often you need to go out in the middle of the night to buy the produce- the stores are only open at 3 or 4 in the morning. Or if you're buying from a farmer, you have to go directly to the farm, which isn't always so easy to do- the farms might be far away.
Getting your produce home isn't so easy. Produce is very heavy, and since it has a lot of water weight, you end up needing a lot of it- 25 lbs of produce gets eaten up much faster than 25 lbs of beans, so buying produce in bulk is very bulky (pun intended). When I bought my produce in bulk, it was such a large amount of cases, and each case was very cumbersome, that I couldn't bring it home by bus as I'd originally intended- I needed to pay someone to drive it home for me.
Then there's also the aspect that produce spoils pretty quickly, so even if it works out very cheaply per pound, if you end up throwing out half because it spoiled, it isn't so cheap anymore. I highly recommend that if you do buy produce in bulk, you stick to things that can be preserved easily- whether frozen, canned, or dehydrated, and get a move on it, so that you actually do get your money's worth instead of just filling your trash.
Speaking of spoiled produce- when you buy by the case, you don't generally get to inspect the produce first- you buy with your eyes shut and hope for the best. Of the oranges that I bought by the case, nearly 1 orange out of 10 was moldy. So that was a waste, but not too much of a waste, because even factoring that in, it was a good price. But buying produce in bulk can certainly be a gamble, in ways that it isn't when you're buying dried goods.

Buying From Importers

My friend Sarah recently got me into this, so it isn't something I have a lot of experience with- I just did it one time. But if you contact importers of goods, that repackage them and resell them to stores, they sometimes might be willing to sell their goods to you in bulk.

The Benefits of buying this way is that often you can get specialty items for rock bottom prices this way. I bought coconut sugar this way for about 1/5 the price it usually is in the stores, and Sarah buys grass fed butter this way as well, again at a fraction of the in-store price.

The Drawbacks of buying this way are many.
First of all, even finding importers isn't so easy.
Then, once you found the importers, they aren't necessarily easy to deal with. They're used to dealing with large companies of regular buyers, and aren't always willing to sell to individuals, and even if they are, they aren't always so happy to do so, so they might not have much patience for you. The place where I bought my coconut sugar, they don't have a website or store listing all the available options, let alone their prices, so I don't even know what is available...
Add in the difficulty of buying things from importers, especially if you don't have a car... if I buy butter, it'll involve two or three buses each way to another city... Fortunately, the same guy who imports coconut sugar locally owns a chain of health food stores, so he is willing to send my bulk order to one of the health food stores near me, so that wasn't too hard to get.

Buying Bulk Through Local Stores

If there is a store where you shop regularly enough and you have a relationship with the proprietor, you may be able to ask them to order a sack or case of something that they sell. This is how I would buy my buckwheat in bulk- a local store that sold things in bulk bins ordered 50 lb sacks of buckwheat for me, which I then picked up.

The Benefits of buying this way is mainly that you can typically get some great prices- since the stores are making orders of cases/sacks anyhow, it isn't hard to just tack on an extra case/sack to their order. And since it isn't so much extra work for them, they're often willing to give you very good prices- maybe not as good a price as if you had bought it from the wholesaler yourself, but still better than buying from the store, and without the headaches of dealing with the wholesalers who may not want to sell to individuals.
You also are generally able to get your things more easily this way. When I was buying my buckwheat from a local store this way, they even delivered it directly to my door as a favor to me, and had they not, they weren't so far from me- they were where I regularly shopped anyhow and had my means of transportation there and back already figured out.

The Drawbacks of buying this way is that you need a relationship with a proprietor usually to do this- large chain stores generally aren't willing to do this- mom and pop type stores are typically a better bet for this type of bulk buying.
And the prices may not be as good as you want... I had to find a new place to buy my buckwheat in bulk because the prices through my previous store got raised too much...

Stocking Up on Sale Items

This isn't what people generally think of when they think about bulk buying, but I'd be remiss if I didn't include this on the list, since the point of bulk buying is to fill your home with larger quantities of lower priced items, and sales are a great way to do that.

The Benefits of buying this way is that anyone can do this- you don't need any special contacts or any special haggling or bartering or making deals with companies, no cold calling "Hey, would you be willing to sell me a sack of x item" and hoping for the best. You just buy at the price you want...
You can buy as little or as much as you want- so if you have a lot of money to lay out you can buy insane amounts of these sale items (assuming there isn't a cap to the amount the store will let you buy- I actually have had store managers come over to me and tell me that they don't sell to businesses, only to individuals, and I had to convince them that yes, I was buying those 20 packages of that item for myself, and not for resale), and if you have less money available to lay out, you can buy just one or two packages at the lower pricing.
I find that with certain items, I get such cheap prices when buying them on sale that it isn't worth it for me to buy them in bulk, as bulk is more expensive than the regular sales. Such is the case with rice and lentils for me locally.

The Drawbacks of buying this way is that prices fluctuate all the time, so you're not guaranteed a certain price. Often sales change day to day or week to week, so in many cases, you just have to go to the store and hope you're lucky, or hear through word of mouth that there is a sale, and then go there quickly before the sale ends, and sometimes getting there and finding out that either the sale ended before you got there, or the supply was depleted before you could buy.
There's also the aspect that you're walking into the grocery store often, to try to catch the sales- and every time you walk in, you are much more likely to walk out of the store with much more than you'd intended to buy.

Overall, the biggest drawback of bulk buying is the need to lay out a lot of money at once on large quantities of the items in order to get the low price, and then having so much food at home, which you then need to find a place to store, and to use up before it either spoils or gets buggy.
One of the best tips regarding bulk buying to avoid this issue is to bulk buy together with friends- if a case of something is too much for you, but half or a quarter of a case is perfect, consider splitting with one friend or a few, so you don't need to lay out such a large amount of money at once nor find room to store it all or use it all up so quickly.

Have you ever bought in bulk? Which of the methods did you buy in bulk? Were you aware of all the different bulk options? Now that you read this, do you think you'd try buying in bulk, either for the first time, or in a method that you hadn't bought before?


  1. Wow! Nice summary!

    I mostly buy bulk from bulk bins and by stocking up during sales. [Note: I haven't seen any bulk bins at Trader Joe's, but I have seen them in food coops and even my regular grocery store. Even spice from Whole Foods are super cheap--they sound expensive (per pound), but most are super light weight.]

    I've seen a few places advertising a percent discount for buying cases, but I haven't tried that out because there's not much that I use large quantities of as a single person.

    Another reason to buy in bulk is sometimes you can get lower or free shipping from mail order places if you meet a minimum purchase amount. If you're going to buy that much stuff sometime anyway, it won't go bad before you use it, and you have room to store it, that can be good. I often save up purchases I want to make from Amazon but that I don't need right away. Then when I'm buying something I do want right away, I can add these other items to bring my total high enough to get the free shipping.

  2. One of the drawbacks is that sometimes after buying 25 pounds of wheat flour and a large amount of powdered milk you find out that you are gluten and lactose intolerant. Or substitute anything else of which you learn you are intolerant. It happens

  3. Thanks for helping to clear up the various things people can mean when they say "bulk buying."

    In the U.S., there's a store that appears to be in the "restaurant supplier" category but is NOT just for businesses and does NOT require a membership: Gordon Food Service. My post comparing GFS and Costco is out of date for specific prices, but it gives a good idea of what foods you can buy at GFS. They also have cookware and disposable serving stuff like paper napkins.

    I recently posted advice for bulk-buying supplies like toilet paper. My local food co-op lets members buy any item by the case at 20% off the shelf price, so that can be a good deal on staple foods as well as paper products.

    I agree with Debbie M: My local Trader Joe's does not have bulk bins.

  4. Wow, excellent post. No idea there were so many options out there.

    One "advantage" of Costco, seems to me, is that they basically do the choosing for you. Suppose you want a quality large screen TV (people sure buy loads of them here); Costco has found, they say, the best of the bunch. Their Kirkland brand for groceries is awesome, but the prices are not the cheapest. Better deals elsewhere but you have to do your own thinking. There are people here who can afford to do that, but I'm not one of them!

    The grocery store where we used to live would let us buy cases, but not at a discount. Bummer.

  5. I am usually a specials shopper (not a special shopper) and buyproducts with the bigger discounts than perhaps Costco's everyday prices. More recently I've found the need to save some time, and bought a Costco membership. I'll see how it works out, but the size of products scare me a little as I'll need more space.

    For me the biggest trap in buying in bulk, is you usually consume more, because it's always on hand. Can I suggest never buying junk food in bulk unless you either have great self control or are happy to pile on the pounds.


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