From Our Pantry: Cutting the Grocery Budget by Buying from Bulk Bins

Some of the items I buy from the bulk bins.

The following is a weekly feature brought to us by Sumiko from Near to Nothing.  I’ve asked her to share tips and tricks (and recipes!) that show us ways to replace the items we’d typically buy canned or frozen from scratch at home for less!  You’ll find a new From Our Pantry post each Monday.

love buying from the bulk bins at WinCo.  A dear friend of mine told me a while ago 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.

Definition of bulk

According to Merriam-Webster.com, 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 all types of foods.  Remember to check the unit price.

The baking section makes me giddy!

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 most of the time, but it prevents you from overbuying and wasting food and money.  For example, if you need wheat germ to make 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.

Now, I said that you get a better price most of the time.  Occasionally some items are cheaper off the shelf, especially if you can combine a sale and a coupon.  To show you how much you can save, I went to WinCo last week and compared bulk bin prices to off-the-shelf prices for items that I regularly buy:

My husband used some of his birthday money to treat himself to some sour patch kids for only $2.85/lb. If he'd bought them off the shelf, he would have paid $3.76/lb.

Item:  bin price/lb. vs. shelf price/lb.; savings/lb.

Raisins:  $1.78 vs. $2.11; $0.33/lb. savings

Almonds, raw:  $3.88 vs. $6.88; $3/lb. savings

Semi-sweet chocolate chips:  $2.59 vs. $2.83; $0.24/lb. savings

Unbleached flour:  $0.36 vs. $0.40; $0.04/lb. savings

Rolled oats:  $0.65 vs. $0.92; $0.27/lb. savings

Long grain brown rice:  $0.61 vs. $0.99; $0.38/lb. savings

Granulated garlic:  $3.78 vs. $6.64; $2.86/lb. savings

Ground cinnamon:  $2.22 vs. $11.18; $8.96/lb. savings

Cinnamon sticks:  $3.29 vs. $84.91 (Yes!  That’s correct!); $81.62/lb. savings

Pinto beans:  $1.01 vs. $1.19; $0.18/lb. savings

Spaghetti:  $0.99 vs. $0.89; $0.10/lb. loss

Grated parmesan cheese:  $3.76 vs. $3.96; $0.20/lb. savings

We can see a few things from looking at these comparisons.  First, the bins will save you the most money on herbs and spices.  Second, not everything from the bins will save you money (see spaghetti).  I find that pasta fluctuates more than most of the other items in the bin so I do check that one every time.  Third, some of these savings may not seem like much.  Saving $0.04/lb. on unbleached flour doesn’t sound worth taking the time to bag it yourself.  But if you use as much flour as I do, that four cents per pound will add up to a lot of savings over an entire year.

The most savings are found in the herbs and spices section.

 

History

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 most 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.

Tips

  • 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.  Pasta and beans are most likely replenished multiple times a day, nutritional yeast and gluten probably much less frequently.
  • 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.  Even if customers are being careful, there can still be some mixing of products.
  • Double bag products such as flour and sugar to prevent spills in the shopping cart or grocery bags.
  • 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 leads to a disorganized pantry and often results in spills as the bags get holes in them.

Canisters or clamp jars keep food fresh. I like clear acrylic canisters because I can see through them. I sometimes use dry erase markers to write what they contain on top.

Canning jars are a great way to store bulk items. The metal rings and lids tend to rust, but these reusable plastic lids work great! Wal-Mart sells a box of 8 for only $2.28!

Sometimes I just refill old packages. I like to baking soda box and baking powder canister because they have the flat surface for leveling off. I also re-labeled the rolled oat canister for steel-cut oats...

I refill my spice jars from the bulk bins. The jar with the red lid I bought from a bulk bin.

  • And lastly, don’t forget to write the bin number on the tag!  It’ll take you twice as long to check-out if they have to look up all the numbers.

Be sure to write legibly!! You don't want to pay for dried blueberries when you really took home raisins.


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(20 Comments)

Comments

  1. Stephani Van Dyk via Facebook says:

    This is a great post! Now… can anyone recommend a good store in or near Concord CA that has bulk bins??? I know Harvest House does, any others?

    • Libby W says:

      Stephani- it is worth the drive to Pittsburg for groceries and bulk to go to Winco

    • I completely agree with Libby! I shop at the Pittsburg WinCo. Before we had one in Pittsburg, I used to make the trek out to the Brentwood WinCo every other week because it was worth it (even before the bypass). I’m pretty sure the WC NobHill has bulk bins in their natural food section, but they won’t be nearly as cost effective as WinCo.

      • The Harvest House on Monument Blvd (across from Costco) is also a good place to go. On Thursdays, Costco members save 10% and if you subscribe to the CCTimes, the first Tuesday of the month has a full page ad with 15% off coupon (bulk bins) and 25% off supplements.

        • Mamato3 says:

          I agree, buying in bulk can save a ton! I love the WinCo bulk section. But I would be cautious of buying raw nuts in bulk. Raw nuts can go rancid quickly, so be sure that you are seeing that the bins are emptied ocassionally to be safe. I think the price difference is huge, but to me not worth the risk of getting sick.

          And yes, Harvest House does have a large bulk section but their prices are ridiculous. Quinoa was almost double what it is at Winco and Oats were the same. Its almost the same price as buying packaged items at a lower-cost store than buying bulk at HH.

  2. Great post! I’m convinced! Thank you!!!

  3. Libby W says:

    Thanks for the article. When I was making a recipe that called for cinnamon sticks I went to buy from the bulk bins since I do not regularly buy them. I needed 2. they did not weight anything so after 4 times of trying to get something on the scale I received them for free since they did not weright enough. Loved it :) But i find the basil as the greatest deal in bulk that I buy.

  4. Well-written & instructive. Enjoyed the History section especially, showing how shoppers’ wariness has flip-flopped over time. You are a very good teacher.

    Awhile ago, I read an article about a woman who shops the bulk bins. She’s environmentally-conscious and rejects plastic bags. So, she actually totes all her glass jars w/her to the store. She fills from bin to her glass jars. At checkout, the cashier knows already the empty-weight of this woman’s glass jars (therefore, the jar weight is subtracted out). She does this for her fresh meats, as well!

    Other sources of glass jars if you’re starting out on this endeavor: Wash out & re-purpose your pasta sauce jars/lids. Thrift stores often have canning jars/lids. For plastic containers: I re-purpose Kraft Parmesan Cheese containers with the shake-out holes & the leveling lip on lid. Good for holding cornstarch, baking soda, special flours etc.

  5. Carrie L. says:

    I think it is also worth talking about the quality of the bulk items. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that WinCo uses Bob’s Red Mill for their flour and I believe their oats too!

    • Thanks, Carrie! Great point! Many of the items are major brands. The dark chocolate chips are Hershey Special Dark, and it’s been a while since I checked, but the huge chocolate chunks used to be Ghirardelli; peanut butter chips are Reese’s. And the snack section has a lot of name brand items that you can buy packaged such as Pepperidge Farm goldfish crackers, Cheez-It snack mix, and Chex mix. The one thing that I haven’t been happy with is the taco seasoning so I buy that at Costco or make it myself.

  6. yep, it’s true, winco bulk bins are awesome, especially for the spices. I’ve been shopping there for years. I haven’t really had (or observed) any real problems with contamination. (I’ve never really been afraid of it either, though for some reason grind your own peanut butter always worried me somewhat… I don’t think I’ll ever buy that.) I have been using canning jars and also reuse my spaghetti sauce jars to store ALL of my pantry items and I HIGHLY reccommend it especially if you keep anything for long periods (such as for emergency preparedness), – I have been able to do away with our moth problem completely! (I took over our pantry from my mom who left our pantry in terrible shape- it was disorganized and full of things from 10 plus years ago.) I do not usually buy the pasta either, and I only get flour and sugars if I run out- when these go on sale during the holidays (easter, thanksgiving, christmas) they are about the same price and cheaper if you use coupons. (Turbinado/demerrara sugars however are an EXCELLENT value from the bulk bins). I used to buy bulk raisins but now I avoid them, as well as any off brand, because I find them to be excessively sandy. yuck.

  7. JenniferM says:

    Ethnic markets tend to have bulk bins. My experience has been with Mexican supermarkets or vegetable stands. My local Mexican market has the best priced and best looking fruits & vegetables. Otherwise, I’d say Whole Foods in CA has bulk bins to try.

  8. Linda Middendorf via Facebook says:

    What stores in the SoCal area sell in bulk like this? ~thanks

  9. my knitting group meets at whole foods once a week, and often i buy my snacks/dinner from the bulk bins. i have to admit, though, i don’t write the numbers down. i use it as a memory excercise, and memorize the numbers until i get to the check out counter. i usually only buy 2 or 3 things, and i’m right 95% of the time!

    also, you can get stuff like rice crackers, and sesame sticks at a much cheaper rate. i think rice crackers are something like $2.99/# in the bulk bins.

  10. Lauryn Fordham says:

    This is a great idea, however I can’t seem to Google and find one in GA? Do these even exist here on the delayed east coast?

  11. Hey, I live in Danville, are there any bulk bin areas out here maybe in Dublin? There are no wincos!! Super lame.

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  1. [...] too long ago, we shared a post titled: Cutting the Grocery Budget by Buying from Bulk Bins Here in an excerpt, head on over here for the full post. According to Merriam-Webster.com, bulk [...]

  2. [...] This is a great money saving spot! LOTS of pantry staples can be found here in this area. Typically close to produce you’ll find grains, whole and ground, dried fruit, pastas, beans, granola, seeds and more! Some things you’ve never heard of! Many of the department managers are VERY enthusiastic about their department so if you can ask about someone who knows the bins really well, you’ll get great suggestions for cooking, new options and substitutions!  You can read more about Cutting the Grocery Budget by Buying from Bulk Bins. [...]

  3. [...] thinking it will lead to savings along the way, only to end up spending more than normal. As this post on the US-based blog The Frugal Find points out, there is a risk of “overbuying and wasting food and money”.  As a way of avoiding [...]

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