If you're a budget-conscious shopper, bulk stores like Costco, Wholesale Club and even Walmart can be hard to avoid. They have a knack at pulling at our desire to bring home a hatchback-busting pile of goods...and our need to justify that behavior (c'mon, it was a good deal!).
The truth is, bulk stores often have some seriously low prices. Unfortunately, crossing one of their ultra-wide thresholds doesn't automatically protect your pocketbook.
If you're heading out for a "big shop," watch out for these bulk-buying traps. They can easily wipe out any savings...
1) Bigger isn't always...cheaper
Something happens to people when they walk into a bulk store. Suddenly, they're in the magical land of good deals, where buying 50,000 Q-tips or a 15-pound bag of tortilla chips seems perfectly reasonable. The problem is that it's often hard to calculate the price per unit on these super-sized packages, which means you'll never know whether you're better off hauling home a year's worth of toilet paper, or just settling for a more demure eight-pack at the local drugstore. Because many bulk stores buy merchandise directly from suppliers and load it without fanfare into their warehouses, they can offer lower prices, but that doesn't mean they always do. Before you buy, get to know the prices of things in your regular grocery store. When the price per unit is lower in bulk, it's time to buy.
2) I like big carts and I cannot lie
Buying the extra-large bag of M&M's might be a bargain — unless, of course, it also leads you to require an upgrade to extra-large pants. (And no, it probably isn't a coincidence that they have a lot of those for sale, too.) That may sound harsh, but it's true. A research paper published by the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in 2010 found that each additional Walmart Supercenter per 100,000 people increased the obesity rate by 2.3 percentage points in the area. They even concluded that the proliferation of these bulk-buying wonderworlds could be a major factor in the 10.5 percent growth in the obesity rate in the U.S. since the 1980s. If you don't have a great track record of keeping your hand out of the cookie jar, buying treats in big packages might cause you to buy more than you normally would and eat more of it, too.
3) Too much of a good thing
Maybe you won't love sweet potato crispy puffs enough to systematically eat your way through an economy-sized bag. Maybe your kids will suddenly declare that they no longer eat what you thought was their favourite breakfast cereal. Or maybe you'll just get tired of heaving that huge, discount bottle of shampoo around in the shower. Which leads us to another problem with buying things in large quantities: waste. Canadians waste about 183 kilograms of food per person each year, according to the George Morris Centre's 2010 study, Food Waste in Canada. Countless other consumable items go out with the trash as well.
Even if you don't give a fig about the environmental impact of throwing all this stuff away, you should note that it's just like putting cash out on the curb for pickup. And who in their right mind would do that? Whenever you buy in bulk, make sure it's something you use consistently over time, not just something you want to try out. And when it comes to perishable items like meat or yogurt, make sure you have a plan to use it up before it goes bad.
4) Time is money
Because bulk stores are essentially warehouses, they aren't your corner store. This means you'll probably have to drive across town to get there - and then shuffle behind throngs of other shoppers to fill your cart, wait in line to pay, and figure out how to fit it all into your car. Unless you're really saving money, it might be time better spent doing something else, like working on a side job, spending time with friends and family or, heck, taking a nap! If you aren't sure how much you're saving, pull out your receipts and do the math. Then you can really decide whether you're netting enough to pay for your time and trouble.
5) The biggest bulk-buying trap
In retail parlance, the U-shaped pathway through a Costco store is called a racetrack, and if you're on it, you'd better make good time because the center of the store is a minefield of non-essentials that can lure shoppers away from their best budgetary intentions. Bulk stores like to get shoppers warmed up with a huge tub of mayonnaise and then send them packing with something entirely different, like a new designer watch, an iPod or a pair of shearling boots. Some people have no trouble steering clear of these items and sticking to a shopping list. Those who struggle with impulse buying should consider looking for sales and coupons at a local grocery store. At least there you'll be constrained to buying food.
Budget conscious...or budget busting?
Being budget conscious isn't as easy as just walking into a bulk store. Bulk buying is tricky, because while it can be cheap, it's also filled with budget-busting perils. So before you find yourself in an extra-large aisle fighting other shoppers for jumbo-sized everything, take a look at what you need and compare prices between stores. No matter where you shop, that's the only way to save.
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