‘You, as a food buyer, have the distinct privilege of proactively participating in shaping the world your children will inherit’ – Joel Salatin
A buyers club is a group of individuals and/or families who combine their buying power to get access to a wide range of quality foods at prices that are typically much cheaper than retail.
Why start or join a buyers club?
- Co-ops can play an important role by supporting local producers through sourcing directly or by sourcing from distributors (such as Food-Connect) that have ethics around what and where they source their produce. Buying in this way can have many flow on benefits to the community, economy, farmers, environmental health, and to the region’s food security.
- By buying direct or from ethical distributors the producer receives money more their product, and it can give them greater flexibility around what types or varieties they produce. Foodies are more interested in variety, which is easier to supply in smaller quantities than for large distributors that require large volumes.
- Local produce mean local variety, and food that is linked to your climate and season.
- It can also mean the development of local cuisine and a greater sense of connection to your food.
The price of food from co-ops varies between 10-50% less than what is found at the local market or supermarket. A study at the Turnstyle Bulkbuyers food coop showed that the average cost was around 20% less than what can be found at even the markets. There was a large variation in the prices, however it showed that the bulkbuyers clubs can consistently reduce your food bill, while still providing a better price to the producer.
It’s impossible to put a price on the health of your family. You’re more likely to eat the food if it’s happy and healthy, and this happiness is contagious. You only have to read the testimonials at food connect to see the enthusiasm that good food brings. Fresh produce that is well suited to the local area will be better for you and the environment. Investing in good food is an investment in your families health and wellbeing for the short and long terms. Local food can spend longer in the ground and less time on the shelf, which means the health and energy of the food is much better than what large distributors can offer. Good food is a good life.
What are the different kinds of groups?
There are two main ways that clubs are run (but bear in mind that every club will have slight differences from the next one). Firstly, there are clubs that work on a pre-order system. This involves everyone communicating exactly what they’d like to buy prior to placing an order with a wholesaler. The benefit here is that everyone knows exactly how much they’ll be spending and also that there will be no excess stock which can result in waste. Be aware that this requires good and prompt communication among members. Generally somebody will need to be assigned the task of collating this information from members and placing the order.
Another common way to run a club is more like a market where the club orders produce based on an estimate of how much they think they’ll sell and members arrive on the night to make their purchase. This can take a bit of practice to get it right as the risk is that ordering too much can lead to waste. The benefit is that it’s more like a market environment allowing the member to choose at the time, and allow interaction of the members. It also provides the opportunity to be introduced to things that you wouldn’t normally pick through encouragement of others around you.
Parts of the pie
- Finding members
While buying in bulk means more savings, it also means more people, time (depending on the model), effort and care is needed to organise. You’ll need to think of how many people you will ideally need to consistently order the right amount of food. Many buyers clubs begin as a group of extended family members, friends, school parents and so on. Social media is one of the best ways to find like-minded people but our buyers clubs have also had a lot of success with good old-fashioned word-of-mouth. If you need any assistance with promoting your buyers club then let us know and we’ll be happy to help.
“At Turnstyle Bulkbuyers club, there is a sweet spot around 30 members buying on the night to make the whole process work smoothly. This includes the diversity of people to perform the various roles, volume of order and redundancy for role rotation. Although turnstyle has over 100 people in their records, only 40 members are active, resulting in between 28 – 35 people buying on the night.” – Turnstyle Bulkbuyers
Now that you’ve found your members and you’re ready to go, the next thing to consider is who is going to do what and how often. The most successful clubs are those that clearly task members with different responsibilities. Think about who is going to be responsible for management of stock, who will look after group finances, who will pack orders each week and who will be responsible for making cups of tea.
- “Turnstyle has a relatively loose volunteer management strategy that relies on announcements and engagement on the night. The roles are well defined though, and cohesive working groups are well engaged. Groups are largely self organising, and when they need help, they announce at the time of buying that help is needed. It’s a fairly organic system that is supported through some background information generated from the lettuceshare website. It’s rather imperfect, but works surprisingly well to fluctuations of people.” (Turnstyle Bulkbuyers – Highgate Hill, Qld)
“As your club grows you may even consider paying some members for their time. Commitment of time can be difficult for busy members so paying a wage rewards their commitment and compensates them for their time. Also, some members may not wish to volunteer any time so paying contributing members makes things a little more equitable.” – Allison (Alma Plate bulk buyers, Sherwood, Qld)
As with most things buyers club-related, the legal structure and governance of your group can be as simple or as complicated as you choose. To keep things simple you may not wish to register your club with the ATO or operate under a formal legal structure. However, the main benefits of doing this include the ability to buy from suppliers who require an ABN.
If the club is being run in the home of one of your members, you will need to consider public liability insurance in case a member gets injured (because not everyone remembers to bend at the knees when lifting!). A simple at home business policy is a cost-effective option that may suffice. As we’ll see below, adding a small percentage onto each order will help to cover these kinds of costs.
Collecting orders from all your members in one place can be a tricky exercise. Buying in bulk means you often have to commit to a large order size (ie. you may have to buy a whole 14kg box of apples to get them at a wholesale price) so how do you ensure that your members want to buy a whole box between them? This is where a good piece of software comes in. There are plenty of different versions out there that a quick search via google will reveal. An option developed right here in Brisbane called Lettuceshare (https://lettuceshare.org) tends to be favoured among a lot of local buyers clubs. Like any good piece of software, purpose-built club software will save you a lot of time and headaches when it comes to managing orders and stock levels which tends to justify the small fee for use. If you’d like to keep your costs to a minimum, though, have a go at setting up your own spreadsheet to manage your club.
Most buyers clubs will add a small percentage on top the cost price of their goods before selling to members. While the aim is to keep prices low for members, any price markup will help cover running expenses such as accounting software, insurance and stationary and packing supplies.
Next, think about how to receive payment from your members. Some groups require cash up front before any orders are placed. This will obviously help with cash flow and eliminates the risk of non-payment from members. However, should a farmer not be able to supply some produce due to unforeseen weather events (for example, heavy rain spoiling a crop of strawberries) members then need to receive refunds which can be a complicated process.
It’s a good idea to consider whether your club will offer refunds or credit. While local produce is usually superb quality, the odd item may not be satisfactory. Members can agree to administer a refunds/credits system, or they may wish to take a ‘take a good with the bad’ style policy, which will save on administration and finance time. This latter option is also similar to the risk the farmer faces in good and bad crops due to the weather, and may align with the values of sharing the risk. You could also agree on a half-way policy, where major issues with the food quality could result in a refund or credit, but small issues are left as is with feedback given to the supplier and farmer for their reference.
For this reason, some clubs choose to operate a “cashless checkout” system where the produce that each member actually receives is recorded and an invoice is sent to them after this. Clubs that operate this way typically charge a membership fee which acts as a bond should any payment issues ever arise.
Finally, consider using a club bank or credit union for your club’s finances to keep the ethics running through every part of the operation & not just the food. Bank MECU is one ‘customer owned bank’ that supports the community, and there are others.
Now to the best part – the food! Fortunately, there are many options when it comes to ordering food for your group. There are a number of wholesalers that supply a range of fruit and vegetables along with groceries and dried goods. Along with this, many farms will supply directly to buyers clubs. While these relationships can require a little more work to get set up, they are also the most rewarding as you not only know exactly where and how your food is grown, but you also get to develop a relationship with the farmer who grows it!
This is probably also a good time to consider the values which drive your buyers club. Is local food your main concern? Or is certified organic your primary focus? Any way you do it is fine, but establishing your values from the start can often contribute to the success and longevity of your group.
Now you are ready for your first delivery, you will need to decide how and where your order will be delivered and split. Firstly, is delivery available at a time that works for your group? Will a group member be available to receive the produce? Where will you run the club? Many clubs begin in the humble garage and often grow to a point where a bigger space like a community hall is needed.
Also, consider getting a hold of the infrastructure essentials (below) to help make your first meeting go smoothly
- The space
- A couple of sharpies
- Plastic or paper bags to split the produce into
- Spare boxes
- A table or two
- A fridge and freezer for storage
A final word: Don’t be daunted! Start small and let it grow naturally.