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Tips for Buying and Keeping Bulk Foods

Martha Stewart Living, November 2004

It seems like a busy person's dream. One trip to a warehouse club -- a store where products are available in bulk to anyone with a membership card -- yields months' worth of food and household supplies. But there can be drawbacks. Basic annual fees average about $40, and not every item is a bargain, so comparison shopping is a must. Then there's the question of storage. Do you have room for two dozen rolls of paper towels? Here are tips for getting good deals, as well as for stashing your purchases -- all you need to be a savvy and satisfied bulk buyer.

Know Your Needs
Bulk items are only worth buying if you can use them before they expire. Consider shopping with a friend and splitting perishables such as meat and dairy products.

Pay Attention to Prices
Warehouse price labels usually contain the purchase price as well as a unit price (for a product that may contain multiple items packaged together), which tells you how much you pay for a standard quantity (per ounce of oil, hundred-count aspirin, and so on). Both numbers might be prominently displayed; read the tag carefully so you aren't surprised at the register. For products you buy often, make a note of the unit price; you can compare it with prices at other stores in order to find the best deals.

Don't Buy on Impulse
Whether it's a jumbo container of your favorite snack or a rack of discounted DVDs, temptation can be found at every turn in warehouse clubs. You should always know what you're looking for before going in. Take stock of what you need in advance, make a list, and stick to it.

Save with Big Packages
Jugs of detergent or oil are unwieldy, but you can decant them into smaller, more manageable containers. Store the originals and refill as needed.

Build a Stairway Pantry
If the stairs leading to your cellar are wide enough, the wall beside (above left) them can be transformed into a pantry for items you use regularly, such as canned goods and other kitchen supplies. Have your local home store or lumberyard cut 1-by-4s in decreasing lengths (use the longest shelves at the top of the stairs, the shorter ones near the bottom). Give them a coat of semigloss paint to make them easy to wipe clean. Then hang them (these are spaced about a foot apart) with metal L brackets.

Safety First
Always use a stud finder when hanging shelves so you know they will be secure enough to hold heavy products. Also, don't be tempted to make shelves along the stairs wider than a few inches; if they extend too far over the stairway, they might pose a safety hazard.

Hide Supplies in a Bench
A storage bench with a hinged lid is handy to have in the mudroom, entryway, or kitchen, and it can be just the right spot for pet supplies. We used this one for canned food, kibble in a large plastic container with a tight-fitting lid, a serving scoop, and a toy bin, and placed it in the back hall, near the door. It's convenient for grabbing toys to take outside, and it provides a place to sit while you put on and take off your shoes.

Deep Seated
Good old-fashioned benches with hinged lids often show up at yard sales and flea markets, and new versions are sold at many home and unfinished-furniture stores. Give one a coat of paint to match your space and it's ready to use.

Find Better Office Space
Chances are, there is plenty of unused room beneath the coats hanging in your hall closet. Make the most of it by setting up an office-supply storage system. We created a wheeled cart and a dolly by affixing casters to ready-made shelving pieces (available at home and hardware stores). These pieces will support heavy items, such as reams of paper, and easily roll in and out of the closet when needed. Storage boxes and tins keep essentials, such as stationery, pens and highlighters, and tape, organized.

Create a Bulk Station
An empty wall in your garage or utility room can be the perfect place to store the largest of your bulk purchases, and extras of those items you bought in multiples. (If the space gets overly hot or damp, however, find a different room for paper products and dry goods.)

Heavy-duty metal shelving units that are easy to assemble can be found at home stores, and are great for holding jugs of laundry detergent, flats of bottled water, oversize canisters of kitchen staples, rolls of bathroom tissue, and more. Remember to stack heavier items on the bottom shelves, for stability. Stretch bungee cords across the front and sides of open shelves to secure items that might slide or tip over. Tuck a step stool underneath so you can reach items at the top.

Hanging Together
Use S hooks to hold an inventory list -- so you know what you have, as well as how much you paid per unit -- for the sake of future comparison shopping. The hooks can also keep other necessities handy: scissors and a box cutter for opening packages, a funnel for decanting liquids, and a scoop for dry goods.

More Bulk Solutions: Toiletry Shelf

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