Buying food in bulk can save you a lot of money — unless the food goes to waste. After all, how many families are going to eat five pounds of strawberries in one week?
To cut waste and take advantage of the deals at warehouse retailers, households across the country are starting informal food buying clubs. While the clubs aren’t super structured, they do require organizing, planning and a level of flexibility to make them a success.
Get the Word Out
To state the obvious, your food buying club won’t be much of a success without club members. The question is, how many?
In traditional food co-ops, the larger that number, the more money the group will save. But if you are simply looking at shopping in bulk at a warehouse retailer or local supermarket (rather than work with a local farmer as is the case with most food coops), having too many members may make things too complicated. Keeping the group at between five to ten families makes more sense, says Patricia Seaman, director of marketing at National Foundation for Financial Education.
“If it’s a really large group it will probably get unwieldy,” she says. “If you have five families you might buy two or three 60-roll packs of toilet paper, but with ten families you’ll buy six and you’re not realizing additional costs savings.” Seaman says it’s more logical to start out with a small group and then add more members where it makes sense.
Where do you find members? The obvious route is to ask family, friends and neighbors if they would be interested in pooling resources. Another option is to post flyers at your local church or use websites like Facebook, Craig’s List and Meetup to get the word out, says Kate Forgach, content editor at Coupon Sherpa, who started a food buying club years ago.
Once you’ve recruited the number of members you need, have the first meeting within two weeks, says Forgach. Otherwise, you risk that interest will wane.
Compare Shopping Lists
Once you have your members, it’s time to sit down and compare shopping lists. Since everyone has their preferred brands and items, you’ll have to figure out where there are discrepancies — or duplication. Everyone drinks milk, for example, but you can’t assume everyone drinks whole milk or 1% milk. The same goes with brands. Some people in the group may only use Bounty paper towels.
Equally important is knowing how much the items on your list typically sell for, so you can quickly identify sales. “A good idea is to assign everybody to track the costs of these products in other locations,” says Seaman.
Be sure to compare items’ cost at the warehouse club and the cost when they go on sale at the local supermarket or grocery store. Don’t assume that shopping at a warehouse club means automatic savings: in some cases, you may be able to get a better deal if you couple coupons with a sale at the supermarket. “The whole idea is trying to get the best value for you dollars and there are more ways to do that than just going to one location,” says Seaman.
Delegate Club Duties
A key to a successful buying club is appointing the right “chief executive officer.” The person heading it up should have good management skills and the ability to delegate, says Forgach. Often, the person starting the club ends up doing all the work, which is unfair and can leave other members feeling left out. Instead, the food club’s CEO will help assign tasks to the rest of the members, including shopping, delivery and distribution of the food, as well as clean up.
Since buying clubs are by nature small, the shopping can fall on one or two people that have big enough vehicles to bring the food back from the store.
One exception: it may make sense for everyone to tag along on the first shopping trip. That way, brand decisions can be made on the spot and the group can learn the prices for certain items. “Bulk buying tends to be a repetitive activity. Once the group knows what the common brands are and what the typical price is, the shopping can go down to one or two people,” says Seaman.
Once the food is purchased, the group will have to decide where it will be stored, when it will be split up and how it will be delivered. If there are perishable items like fruit or meat, the group may decide pick up has to be right after the shopping spree. If its non perishable items like toilet paper or toothpaste, there may be more leeway as to when you can get your share. If you’re buying food that can go bad like fruits and vegetates, Forgach says it may be worth it to hit the store once a week. If its things that can be frozen like meat, the buying group may only have to shop once a month.
The group will also have to figure out how many containers, tin foil or saran wrap and other items they will need to split up the food. Not to mention who will handle the money and take the orders. Being flexible will add to the success of the club. If the group starts out with rigid rules it will be hard to change something that it isn’t working.
Make It Fun
Food shopping is a chore for most people, even if it’s in a group setting. Keeping it interesting could ensure the food club isn’t a flash in the pan.
Sharing recipes, having pot lucks or showing each other how to use the food are ways to spice it up. “If it’s a little more social than just a business operation, people are less likely to dump work on one another,” Forgach says .