Everything is more expensive these days, it seems, and shopping the sales only helps so much. If you're like me and try to buy natural or organic products when possible, it's even more expensive as they rarely go on sale at the grocery stores. Not only that, but selection of natural and organic items is rather limited in the larger grocery stores and very expensive at the smaller health food grocers. After being frustrated with lack of choice and bombarded with the high prices, we decided to approach our grocery purchasing from a different angle. We took advantage of the fact we weren't the only people who felt this way and started a couple of buying clubs. It's a great way to obtain natural and organic products at a greatly reduced cost. All that's needed are some organizational skills, and families who are willing to participate and share the work as needed. The more families involved, the greater your buying power!
The first buying club we started up was with the Ontario Natural Food Coop, back in 2005. We started out with 5 or 6 families and within two years our membership had expanded to the point that it made organizational and geographic sense to split into two separate buying clubs. Our current club has 7 families and we place an order almost every month.
The ONFC primarily carries more processed natural foods, paper goods, toiletries and specialty products. Their selection of flours, legumes, dried fruits and grains is a bit limited, so a few years later we expanded to doing group purchases through Mountain Path. Mountain Path doesn't carry any refrigerated or frozen items -- we still get those from the ONFC -- but it carries a wide variety of dried goods, sourcing as many as possible locally in and around the Ottawa Valley.
Our buying group for Mountain Path is much less formal than that for the ONFC -- purchases range from 3 families to 6-7 families and we tend to order every few months. The minimum order is lower than that of the ONFC and the delivery turn-around is much faster. We order on a Tuesday and receive on a Thursday, as opposed to the 2 week time frame on ONFC orders.
There are many companies open to bulk purchases and buying in bulk is much more cost effective than buying individually. If there is a product in which you are interested, it doesn't hurt to approach the company directly to inquire about minimum purchase sizes. My husband is involved in a couple of bulk purchase groups for grain (for home-brewing) and beer kits. It's a great way to shave a few dollars off the price!
Setting up a coop buying group doesn't have to be hard. It requires a bit of organizational ability and some flexibility in scheduling, as you need to be available for deliveries. It also requires a certain amount of fridge and freezer space to accommodate any perishables.
Things To Consider When Starting A Buying Club:
1. How large do you want or need your club to be?
Too small, and you'll have trouble making the minimum order threshold and be unable to order every month -- missing out on monthly specials offered by your supplier. Too large, and the paperwork can become unwieldy, receiving and sorting becomes a big job needing a bigger space than the average home or garage. Both of our clubs are 5-8 families in size. This gives us optimal buying power, the ability to place an order when desired, and is still small enough to keep the workload to a minimum.
2. How will you divide the labour?
Initially, with our first buying club, we rotated the jobs on a frequent basis. This spread the workload around, but made it difficult to track the paperwork and as a result we ran into some accounting errors that took a long time to untangle and set right. Now our ONFC buying club has one "orders" person who places the order and reconciles the invoice, one "accountant/manager" who tracks all the credits, debits and holds onto the original invoices, and the job of receiving the order rotates around on an ad hoc basis -- not all families are able to take on one of these jobs, for various reasons, but make up for it just by ordering and increasing our ability to make group purchases.
With our Mountain Path buying club, I found it easiest to take on the job of club manager/orders/receiving myself. Orders for this group are typically placed for fewer families and its easiest for everyone, myself included, if we have one primary contact person for our orders.
3. How will you handle payments?
With our buying clubs, whoever receives delivery of the order pays for everything with one cheque. Whenever possible, our "orders" person reconciles the invoice with our order -- accounting for things that were out of stock, or not shipped -- and provides each family with their individual total before order pick-up. Each family provides a cheque for this amount made out to the person who received and sorted the order.
When the invoice is not available in time, each family drops off a blank cheque to the person receiving the order. The cheque is filled out and cashed when the totals are available.
When our first group was really large and it took longer to have the individual totals, we would give the receiver two cheques -- one made out for 75% of our original order total and the other blank. The blank cheque would be made out for the difference once the totals were known.
4. Write a "Frequently Asked Questions" or Policies document that club members can use as reference for proper procedures when ordering, receiving and sorting orders, handling payments and other situations. It is easiest for everyone if there is one clear way in which to handle each different situation -- consistency cuts down on costly errors!
5. This is sort of covered by #2, but important enough to deserve an entry of its own. Set up spreadsheets to track credits/debits and orders/payments. This will be indispensable if any accounting anomalies arise, and is much easier to do from the very beginning than to try and set up retroactively! If you have one person handling all the paperwork, make sure that at least one other person is fully trained in handling it as well. A job shadow is critical for accounting!
We find Google Docs a great way to handle any files that need to be accessible by multiple people. Our Mountain Path group has an order spreadsheet on the go at any given time, where folks can enter their items on an on-going basis until we all decide to place an order.
Another tip is to set up a separate mailing list for each of your buying groups. Email is a quick and effective way to arrange orders, and communicate amongst members. It's also a great way to track group correspondence in one central location!
So what are you waiting for? ;)