Below you’ll find answers to frequently asked questions about bulk buying clubs and food co-ops. You can also check out a specific FAQ for the Pop-Up Wholefoods food co-op (Dublin 1).
How is being in a bulk buying club different to shopping at a health food store?
A health food store buys in stock that it hopes customers will come along and purchase – and it needs premises and staff to make the sales. By contrast, a bulk buying club doesn’t really sell at all – it simply organises the buying power of its members to purchase goods wholesale from one or more suppliers. Instead of presenting shelves of produce in a shop that’s open day after day, there’s a simple list of products members can order and a delivery day when everything arrives, perhaps once a month. Everything has been pre-ordered and pre-paid. The other big difference is the lower prices!
Why can a bulk buying club offer much cheaper prices?
Not renting full-time premises is the first thing that keeps costs down and when everyone volunteers there are no staff wages to pay, avoiding another major overhead. A further cost saving for members comes from the fact that group members bulk buy as a collective so they can share things like 25kg sacks of oats or lentils. The cost per kilo is much cheaper than the small packs available in health food shops and supermarkets, so again members get much lower prices.
Why do I need to volunteer to be part of a bulk buying club?
Bulk buying clubs aren’t like for-profit businesses that you pay to provide you with a service. Instead, in return for the savings members gain, it’s expected that everybody who benefits does a fair share of the limited work it takes to run it, such as helping out on delivery day. It’s a co-operative, collaborative model.
What’s the difference between a bulk buying club and a food co-op?
In some cases, little or nothing. A food co-op can operate a bulk buying club model of pre-order, pre-pay and it can use premises on a pop-up basis rather than operate a full time store, although better-known food co-ops tend to have full-time premises, carry stock and are structured to meet the legal definition of a co-operative in the country they operate in. By contrast, bulk buying clubs are more informal: co-operative in spirit but often not in a narrow legal sense, being more likely to operate as an ‘unincorporated association’. Both Dublin Food Co-op and the Urban Co-op in Limerick began life as bulk buying clubs before transitioning into retail co-operatives.
How well can the bulk buying club model support local food?
Bulk buying clubs have been used to source all kinds of things – the basic model is hugely flexible. Today, they tend to be associated with long-life ‘dry goods’, like oats, rice and pasta, although groups can adopt pre-order arrangements similar to a box scheme for local fresh produce. Equally, the community supported agriculture (CSA) model, which has several parallels with bulk buying clubs, is another great way to go.
From an administrative point of view, sourcing a large proportion of produce from a single supplier is easier than trying to deal with a number of local producers – but a bulk buying club can certainly run successfully in this way.
When looking further afield for foods not grown in Ireland, a group can place a strong and conscious emphasis on minimising food miles: quinoa from Britain not Bolivia, plant milk made from soy beans grown in France not Brazil, etc.