How many members is ‘enough’?

The idea of forming a bulk buying club may sound like it would involve recruiting lots of people, but that’s probably not the case. Two related pieces of advice shine through a range of published guides to running such a group:

  • Start small
  • If you can, start with people you already know
Start small

To make an order, you only need a few households willing to pool their spending power. In researching suppliers, you’ll find that the ‘minimum order’ levels they require for a delivery are not huge – generally a few hundred euro. Thus, the starting point for your group could be five households – or three – or seven – so long as they want to significantly stock up on wholefoods. Seven orders averaging €200 each would generally cover the highest supplier minimum you’ll encounter; others could be reached with less than half that level.

Along with a handful of friends, you could easily think in terms of making a ‘pilot’ order as you develop ideas about a more long-term approach. Taking up an account with a wholesaler is not like signing a contract that ties you to an ongoing arrangement. You order, you pay, you get your stuff. Maybe it’s the start of a beautiful relationship – but fidelity and ongoing commitment are not required. In short, what this means is that you don’t need to be overly cautious about trying out bulk buying. However, it’s wise not to move forward from any pilot without thoroughly addressing all of the key issues covered in our pamphlet, like sketching out some principles as your foundation.

To go beyond a single order, you need to take a different perspective on how many member households will be ‘enough’. In essence, you need to try and maintain a membership pool that’s sufficiently large that you can be confident of always reaching the minimum level with your supplier, even if some members skip an order and others scale back after an earlier stock-up. Consistently reaching your minimum order level is key to keeping a schedule.

Begin with people you know

Trust will be a big factor in your bulk buying club. It’s something you can deepen over time with people you don’t know well, but starting with a group of friends or colleagues at the outset offers the benefit of building on an established bond.

One of the defining things about a bulk buying club is that it’s based on pre-ordering and, usually, pre-payment – just like the relationship with a wholesaler. From the perspective of the group, you need to be certain that each person placing an order has also come through with the funds to back it up before going ahead with the supplier. From the member angle, everyone needs to feel confident paying up-front, perhaps a week in advance of receiving anything.

Similar considerations apply if your club is aiming to operate as a collective and fairly share the work involved in managing orders and handling deliveries. This means your group won’t suit everyone attracted by the savings – each household that joins needs to be willing to commit time and energy in return. In a classic book, Tony Vellela gives an important caution against watering down the principle that membership = volunteer work:

“It is true that … you need a certain number of orders to combine into a bulk order equal to a wholesale quantity. It is also true that you may experience some delays in locating the number of people required in order to begin. It is not true that someone who cannot contribute volunteer time would be doing your group a favour by purchasing from you” (1975, p24)

None of this is to say that you must make the same demands of everyone and cannot consider factors like childcare responsibilities or disability in allocating work tasks. Everyone should be expected to make a fair contribution. While various operating tasks are suited to flexible timings, you are sure to need a team of daytime volunteers ‘mucking in’ on each delivery day. It is important to establish this core need with all members, including those who work full-time. Achieving a fair allocation of shifts may mean they need to occasionally take leave to cover their commitments to the group.

Thus, for a bulk buying collective, work-sharing is something you are best to embed as one of your principles. In essence, the basic requirement of all members is that they trade volunteer time for the savings they receive. If this is not clearly understood, you risk a situation where the bulk of work will quickly fall on members who are retired, studying, unemployed, etc. In turn, this can become one of the biggest challenges in sustaining a group.

Growth or stability?

If you regularly have enough members ordering to cover your costs, there is no reason why your group needs to grow in size. You may well prefer to stay small and friendly and may choose to place a cap on the number of places in your group to reflect this.

By contrast, if your group has set a goal of ultimately building a retail co-operative, your period as a buying club may be squarely about building numbers and momentum to take on this transition.

Both are sound choices. However, it’s important to emphasise that the bulk buying club model isn’t simply a stopping point on a journey to somewhere else. Whilst a group’s membership and energies will inevitably ebb and flow over time, once started there is no reason why a bulk buying club cannot sustain for the long-term in that format. Our listing of established groups is proof of that!

This article is adapted from our free PDF pamphlet: Starting and Sustaining a Bulk Buying Club: A ‘How To’ Guide

About this site

This site aims to encourage and support the setting up of further bulk buying clubs and small food co-ops in Ireland by sharing the experience of individuals who have operated a ‘pop-up wholefoods’ model over a number of years.