There are multiple reasons to buy foods (and some pet foods/bird seed!) from the bulk section. Number one on the list is: it's cheaper. Other benefits include you get only as much as you need, so it's fresher when you use it. Also, you can try new things without wasting it if you don't like it. And it cuts down on wasteful packaging. Here's why:
First, you are avoiding labels and brands, which means you are avoiding advertising and the companies that pay for it. This lack of advertising is reflected in the price. The stuff in bulk is what it is, you get an ingredients list, maybe a nutritional panel, but you don't get or pay for anyone's name on it.
Secondly, you are saving not just on packaging, but shipping and handling of that item. It is much easier and affordable to put together and ship a single box very full of a single product, rather than a box full of pre-proportioned smaller boxes. By reducing the manufacturer/grower's amount of packaging and handling, you reduce the price. You also reduce the amount of packaging you then throw away once you use the product.
Thirdly, as I said before, you can buy only what you will use in the time it is good. This ensures the freshest ingredients for you, but often is why many stores won't do more items in bulk. Many food companies package their foods for the amount an average family will go through in a set period of time. They charge a premium for the smallest packages, because they have to sell more small packages to move the same amount of product. For shelf stable items like flour, they pack in 1-5lb bags, the 1 lb almost always more per lb than the 5. For grains that go stale, I've found they seem to charge the most per unit for their single-size boxes. When you are buying bulk, you control the exact amount of what you are getting, without the price difference that accompanies branded foods. In order for the grocery store to make money off of their bulk section, this means they have to sell to more people if the product is bought in small quantities to get through their stock before it expires. So, do your favorite store's bulk section a favor, and pass this post along to someone who could benefit from bulk!
How to go bulk:
Who sells in bulk:
First, locate stores near you that have more than candy in bulk. In the Mesa, AZ, I am pretty happy between Winco Grocery Store's bulk section and Sprout's bulk and spice section (the spices are located away from the general bulk, so look around the endcaps by other spices.) Start with your local grocery stores you already frequent. If they don't carry much in bulk, start looking for grocers that market themselves with phrases like 'natural foods' or 'supply', and see what they carry.
When I was in Buffalo, NY, I fell in love with the local Lexington Co-op on Elmwood. They had a nice bulk assortment, and a nice priced spices section with some harder-to-find spices. They had the most affordable vanilla beans my vodka could hope for! It was also just a really lively local business I enjoyed supporting. So, also look for a local food co-op near you, as well. Often times, you have to pay a a 'membership' fee, but usually it is a one-time lifetime buy-in, and your money is returned to you should you decide to leave.
If you have a Whole Foods near you, they have a large bulk and often carry even more organic bulk items, but you pay a premium for the multiple choices. More and more grocery chains are starting to carry items in bulks, but not all selection or quality is created equal, so pay attention to how clean the area is kept, how many people are buying from it, and what kind of products they carry. These are clues to how fresh and clean those contents will be.
Process of buying from the bulk section:
1. Take a plastic bag from roll.
2. Open and pour or scoop desired amount of product into bag.
3. Secure bag shut, either by my 'tag-a-bag' method to right, or with a twist tie, or some bags are now 'zipper' style.4. Find marking device (could be a marker to write on the bag, or a pen to write on a thick twist tie) and write down the PLU number that corresponds with the product you are buying (they make the number very obvious, don't fret.)
5. Start a new bag for each different product type.6. Take to register, where they weigh bag and enter its number to get how much per unit it is (and of course, then you pay for your food and eat it.)
Some bagging considerations:
Many places won't let you bring in your own containers for the bulk stuff, because they don't have a zero scale option at the tills (they can't tare). Each purchase you make is weighed, and the computer automatically subtracts a gram or so to account for it being in a plastic bag. This isn't great, but it is the easiest and most all-around sanitary way of doing business right now. I did read an interesting post over at FoodInJars, about bringing your own containers. It seems it all depends on the staff, your store's policy, and your willingness to carry stuff. I do like the idea of reusable bulk bags like they show here, you can just wash, but I personally have to look into it more. In the mean time, the bulk and produce bags of most stores are recyclable with plastic shopping bags, or can be used if you have a pet that goes #2 a lot where it shouldn't. Just make sure your store hasn't switched to a 'compostable plastic', which is not recyclable but rather, you guessed it, compostable. Usually they proudly exclaim this on the bag itself, so just keep an eye out.
As for shutting the bags of goodies, I started getting sick of twist-ties everywhere in my house. It seemed a waste, these little strips of tin covered in paper that couldn't be recycled, and we just didn't have enough use for all them. So, I saved up some bread bag tags. Using nail polish remover, I got them all clear of any inks/writing. I hooked these tabs to a keychain with a mini keychain marker I had from some gift from some time period (in other words, I have no idea where it came from). This I attached to my coupon pouch. Now, in the bulk section, I simply pull off a bread tag, tag-a-bag, and write down my bulk number on whatever is easiest to see on the plastic. So far, I have to explain the 'number is written on the bag, not the tag', but no cashiers have gotten upset by my method. And, no more twist ties going to a landfill.
And finally, if you are going to buy in bulk, you will want to start now collecting containers to put your goodies in, because the plastic bags will not keep them fresh for long. Read my post on Budget Pantry Containers, and start collecting bottles and jars now. Oh, and enjoy that first fresh, well-priced bulk buy!