Friday, December 3, 2010

Buying in Bulk

Faithful readers of Near to Nothing will know that I love buying from the bulk bins at WinCo.  A dear friend of mine told me the other day that she just started buying from the bins.  Until recently, she was scared of them.  And I know she’s not alone.  So I thought I’d give a brief definition and discussion of bulk, a very short history of dry goods, and some tips for buying in bulk.  If you don't have a WinCo near you, check your area for stores that carry bulk items.  Kimiko likes the bulk bins at Sprouts.

Definition of bulk
According to, bulk simply means “not divided into parts or packaged in separate units; in large quantities.”  The basic principle is that, the more of a good that one buys, the cheaper it is per unit.  For example, if my daughter buys a half-pint carton of milk at school, it costs $0.50, or $8.00 per gallon.  However, I can go to Costco and buy 2 gallons of milk for $3.79, or $1.90 per gallon.  This principle is true for most types of foods.  Remember, check the unit price.

Why buy in bulk
Following this principle, it is much cheaper per pound to buy a 50-pound bag of flour than a 5- or 10-pound bag of flour.  But the average home cook does not need 50 pounds of flour at one time.  Enter the bulk bins.  A store can buy the large quantities at a cheaper price and then distribute it out to its customers.  Buying in bulk is like buying that 50-pound bag and sharing the flour and the cost with others in your community.

Not only does buying in bulk get you a better price, but it prevents you from overbuying and wasting food and money.  For example, if you need wheat germ to make Kimiko’s granola bars, but do not normally use it for any other purpose, it would be prudent to buy just the right amount for the recipe from the bins.  If you were to buy a whole jar, you would only use part and the rest would go to waste.

Until the late 1800’s, this was the only way to buy dry goods.  When pre-packaged oats were introduced by the Quaker Oat Company in 1885, people were afraid of them because they could not see the product.  The company had to convince people by giving away free samples and placing bonus items in the boxes.

As people grew accustomed to pre-packaged food, more and more products were available that way and bulk bins disappeared.  Consumers then grew wary of buying products from bulk bins because they felt packaged products were safer.  But bulk bins have reappeared in the last few years as people have come to realize that these products are a safe, economical alternative to packaged foods.  Even high-end grocery stores now have bulk bins, usually in the natural foods section.

If you’re afraid of buying from bins because other people have had access to the products before you, remember that they too are trusting you to exercise care.  I have been buying from the bulk bins ever since I discovered WinCo about seven years ago, and I have never had a problem with the products.

  • Only buy items that you are confident have a quick turn-around.  The more commonly used the product, the fresher it is in the bins.
  • Make sure the size of the bin correlates with demand.  Buying flour from a large bin is okay because it has a quick turn-over.  Buying sun-dried tomatoes from a large bin is probably not a good idea because they sell more slowly.
  • Buy only as much as you can store and use before it goes bad.
  • Do not buy from bins if you have a food allergy to other items around them.  If have a wheat allergy, do not buy sugar from the bin located next to the flour.
  • Double bag products such as flour and sugar.
  • As soon as you get home, transfer the products to air-tight containers.  Label the containers if you think you may forget what is in them.  Here are the various ways I store my bulk bin products:
Leaving the products in the store bags creates a disorganized
pantry and often leads to spills as the bags get holes in them.

Canisters or clamp jars keep food fresh.  I like clear acrylic
canisters (available here) because they are lightweight
and you can easily see what's in them.

Canning jars are also excellent and are
available at almost any general
merchandise store and most grocery stores.

I refill my spice jars from the bulk bins.  The shaker with
the red top I bought at WinCo (from the bulk bins).
Sometimes I just refill old packaging.  I like
the baking soda box and baking powder
canister because they have the flat surface
for leveling off when measuring.

I re-labeled an old-fashioned oat container to store
steel-cut oats.
And I added the cooking instructions.


Kristin said...

Loved the post! It was super detailed and super helpful!!!!

Jen said...

I'm still scared of the bulk bins. I've seen what people do to exposed food. I'll buy items that are going to be cooked thoroughly, but no "ready to eat" things!

Becky said...

I don't dare buy chocolate chips in bulk. It may well make sense from a financial perspective but I know perfectly well that a switch would flick inside my head and "MUST-EAT-CHOCOLATE" mode would take over. Chocolate chips never last for very long around me and the larger the quantity, the worse it gets. It's a strange one, because you could hand me a yard of chocolate and I wouldn't touch it but I can't leave chocolate chips alone.

We don't have the bulk bins at our local cash & carry but I'd definitely consider buying from them, if it made financial sense. As you say, we've gotten so used to pre-packaging that anything else seems scary. But, as I always say, do the things that scare you. Particularly if it's going to save you money.

KellyC said...

Have you seen the Ball plastic lids that fit canning jars? I think I paid $1.88 for 6 at Walmart. Nice because it is one piece and they don't rust.

Sumiko said...

Thanks, KellyC!! I'll have to check next time I'm there! That would be so convenient as I never actually can anything so don't need the metal lids and rings.

Related Posts with Thumbnails