Does Buying in Bulk Save Money, or Is It a False Economy?

CC BY 2.0. Jakub Hałun in Wikipedia/ Buying in bulk can be hard for some people

Frugal green living is a popular topic on TreeHugger, and often one of the suggestions is to buy in bulk. In a recent post, 13 items you should always buy in bulk, Katherine extolled the virtues of buying in bulk at stores like Costco.

I have never been to a Costco. My dad did. I think about 25 years ago he went to the first one to open up here and bought 50 bars of soap, and said, “I’ll never have to buy another bar of soap in my entire life!” He was right; I think we threw some out when we cleaned out my mom’s apartment last month.

Costco Toronto

Google Earth; our nearest Costco in the upper left corner./CC BY 2.0I could go to Costco; there is one that’s within a half hour drive of my house, the box on the upper left, and we have a car. But I don’t for a number of reasons.

The first and most obvious reason is:

The whole system is designed for and biased toward people who live in suburbs.

They are big boxes surrounded by a sea of parking and if you don’t have a car you are really out of luck. But out there, the bigger the SUV, the luckier you are; you can fill it with bargains.

inside a big box

Zehrs in Barrie, Ontario/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

The economics of suburbia are based on a giant subsidy to those who drive.

Author Edward Humes estimates that if gas taxes covered the true costs of driving, then gas would cost over ten dollars a gallon. This weekend I was in a big supermarket in Barrie, Ontario, the city where my dad had his cottage and went to the Costco, and was just in shock. I had never been in such a big store ever in my life. It seemed bigger than our airport. But when land is cheap, it’s easy to throw up a box, fill it with stuff, and have high volume and high turnover, so that everyone can drive there and have lots of choice and low prices.

They are biased toward people who have big houses because it takes space to store all this stuff.

But that’s what you have in the suburbs. People in apartments don’t have room for 36 rolls of toilet paper and don’t want to carry it up the stairs.

They are biased towards people with families and penalize singles and seniors.

If you don’t need 36 rolls of toilet paper because you live alone and only need 6, you will find it costs almost the same amount of money. A few weeks ago my wife asked me to pick up some cornstarch for our cabin (where everything has to come across by boat, there are just two of us, and we are only here for 3 months). A tiny 8-ounce container (all that we needed) was $2.99. A 16-ounce container was $3.29. That’s just not fair to people who don’t want or need that much.

It’s grossly unfair to poor people.

They often don’t have cars, and they often live day to day, so they can’t plan on buying a year’s worth of toilet paper. So they go to the bodega and pay ridiculous prices. Sure, it costs more to run a small store downtown than a big box, but the difference in price per unit that people pay shopping for small packages in the bodega compared to the big package in the big box is shocking.

costco soap

Costco soap/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

A lot of it is wasted, a lot of it is second rate, and doesn’t save you any money at all.

We have this jug of dishwashing detergent from Costco that my daughter bought last year and it smells so toxic we won’t use it and I am taking it to the dump. This isn’t saving money. Katherine made suggestions for buying in bulk but, over time, some of them deteriorate; beans get stale, pasta gets bugs, and olive oil is better fresh.

If you have more, you tend to use more.

If you have 24 beers in the fridge you will drink more beer. Professor Brian Wansink has demonstrated that if you have more ice cream in the freezer you will eat more ice cream; he did a study of warehouse club shoppers which showed that “families that have more food in the house eat more food.“ If you eat and drink all that, you will use more toilet paper. Of course you also have to pay for the car and the bigger fridge and the house, so it may well be, in the long run, a false economy.

In the end, the entire big box economy is a big honking subsidy to people with cars living in the suburbs by the poor, the singles, the seniors, the urban, the cyclists.

It only works because of the highways and the parking lots and the infrastructure paid for by everyone (road taxes do not cover the cost of the roads) and enjoyed by the drivers. The companies charge twice as much for small packages as big ones because they can; the purchasers without cars and access to the big boxes, the ability to drive between the Walmart and the Costco and the Price Club, don’t have a choice.

Small business sign

© Support local business

By choosing to live in the city, to bike everywhere, to shop at the local stores, to downsize my accommodations, I have no choice but to pay more for everything that I buy. But I do get some value; the money I spend stays much closer to home, employs a lot more people, and keeps our local main street vibrant. It’s why I go on about shopping local every fall.

The big box economy exists because of the car.

If you believe that we have to reduce our dependence on the car, then really, there are some fundamental choices we have to make: to live at higher densities in smaller spaces and to use cars less. There is not a lot of room for buying in bulk in that world.