Can Buying from Supermarket Bulk Bins Save you a Bundle?

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I’ve walked by the bulk bins at the supermarket countless times never stopping to check out the prices. About the only thing I’ve ever purchased from the bulk bins was candy. Last night I decided to take a closer look to see how much you could save if you bought bulk instead of pre-packaged foods. We have a Winco, a co-op supermarket, near our home with a pretty decent selection of bulk foods. I took a small notebook with me and compared the prices from the bulk bins on a half dozen popular items with the prices of pre-packaged goods sitting on the shelves. I broke everything down to their cost per ounce and was pretty surprised by what I found.

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What’s In Those Bulk Bins Anyways?

Candy is the first thing I think of when I think of bulk bins but I was happily surprised to discover all the different types of food you can buy from the bins if your supermarket has a decent sized bulk section. Most bulk bins contain a variety of spices from ginger to allspice as well as salt and pepper. They also contain several types of flour, rice, pancake mix, oats, bran, pasta, nuts, dried fruits, and cereals. I also found gravy mixes, soup bases, stuffing mix, even dog food. On your next trip to a supermarket with a bulk section, take a stroll around the bins to find out what they offer, you’ll be surprised at the variety of foods.

Why Are Bulk Prices Cheaper?

There are several reasons why bulk foods are often cheaper than pre-packaged foods:

Packaging – I’ve read of instances were packaging can account for as much as 70% of the cost of a particular food item. With the cost of oil and paper at record highs bulk food prices are not as impacted on the packaging front.

Transportation – Since there is less packaging bulk foods are cheaper to transport. Many bulk food items are shipped in large containers that are easy to double stack taking up less room on trucks. This is something I never really thought about until reading this article on the NY Times.

No branding – There are no brand names in bulk food and thus no marketing costs are passed on to bulk food buyers.

Buying Bulk is Better for the Environment

Buying from the bulk foods section is also an environmentally friendlier way to get food into your home. By switching from packaged goods to bulk foods consumers are keeping waste out of the landfills particularly packaging made of plastics which are slow to biodegrade. They are also saving trees from being cut down for packaging.

Many environmentally conscious shoppers are re-using those little plastic bags offered in the bulk sections for multiple trips. I’ve heard of some shoppers bringing containers from home, having them weighed before they are filled up, and having the cashier put the weight on a sticker on the container. When they go to check out, they weigh the filled container and subtract the amount written on the sticker. Please check with your local supermarket beforehand to see if they allow containers from home.

How Much Can you Save?

I decided to jot down some of the prices for items in the bulk food section and compare them with prices of the same pre-packaged food on the shelves. I found some significant savings in some areas and no savings in others. I’ve included my pricing in the chart below. I found some significant savings. For example, buying old fashioned oats in the bulk section would have saved you just over 50% than buying Quaker Oats. Buying cake flour in the bulk section offered another big savings at a 65% discount to the on-the-shelf price. Items like buttermilk pancake mix and muffin mix offered moderate savings of around 12%. Other items like corn flakes and frosted flakes offered no discount at all. I found it really pays to keep a pricing book and compare the per ounce price.

Some of the savings came from comparing bulk items with brand name products where you’re paying for the marketing that goes into promoting the brand. However, I still found savings when comparing bulk items with private label items. Another sort of counter intuitive savings is that buying from the bulk section is a great way to save when you only need to buy a few ounces. Smaller pre-packaged items are disproportionately more expensive than larger items because of the higher percentage of cost coming from the packaging. If you want to buy a small amount of flour or oats the bulk food section is probably your best bet.

I’m going to do some more pricing comparisons from the bulk section on my next trip to the supermarket. From now on I’m going to start purchasing more of my food from the bulk food section; not only for the financial benefit but also for the environmental benefit as well.

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Photo credit: thrust

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