Solution 2: Purchase Supplies and Goods Together

In addition to sharing ownership or use of goods, people can also cooperate in purchasing staples and other supplies. Group buying has many benefits. Of course, it helps you save money through volume discounts, wholesale pricing, and consolidated shipping costs. But it also saves packaging and transportation costs (and energy); gives you greater access to products that might be otherwise hard to find or too expensive, like organic or fair-trade products; makes it affordable to support local and small businesses; and saves shopping time. It's also a lot of fun: You will learn a lot about how others live, what they buy, and why.

Chapter 8 covers grocery cooperatives and food-buying clubs. Here we talk about all the other household items you could cooperate with others to buy.

Goods to Purchase

You can collectively purchase just about anything your group wants in large quantities.

Household Goods That Are Regularly Replenished

Here are some goods that consumers can cooperate to purchase regularly:

  • firewood
  • propane
  • paper products, such as toilet paper
  • bath and hair products
  • personal and dental hygiene products
  • baby care products, such as diapers
  • laundry detergent, dish soap, and sponges
  • cleaning supplies
  • over-the-counter medicines and supplements
  • school and office supplies
  • batteries
  • light bulbs (LED or CFLs to save energy, of course), and
  • gardening supplies, such as soil, mulch, and plant food.

Infrequent or One-Time Purchases

It might also make sense to join forces to buy items that you don't need regularly. If enough people want something, you can probably save money by buying together. For example, if you have a number of neighbors landscaping in the spring, you might all go in on a couple of tons of gravel, to be distributed among your walkways. You could also bargain collectively to get a discount on things like furniture or other large items.

EXAMPLE: Charles approached his friend Olive, a furniture-maker, to buy two Adirondack chairs. Charles wanted to support Olive's furniture business, but he couldn't afford the chairs at $200 apiece. Charles asked Olive whether she would give him a discount if he found more people who would buy the chairs at the same time. He talked up the idea to friends and neighbors, and even posted an ad online. Charles found eight other people who wanted to buy the chairs, and everyone paid $130 per chair. As a result, Olive was able to buy wood for, make, and sell 16 chairs all at once, and she got amazing free marketing from Charles. By cooperating with other buyers and coordinating it with the furniture maker, it was a great deal for everyone.

How to Form a Buying Club

If you'd like to purchase goods with others, follow these steps to form a basic buying club.

  1. Get your group together. Form a group of people interested in doing group buying. The group does not have to include only neighbors; because your purchases will be relatively infrequent, coworkers, friends, and family members who don't live nearby will probably be willing to come to you every few months to share in the bounty. Larger groups require more administrative work, but they are also better able to leverage the benefits of group buying.
  2. Decide what to buy. Once you have enough people, hold your first meeting and plan your purchases. What criteria will you use in choosing products—do you want only the cheapest, the greenest, the most socially responsible? How flexible are people willing to be about brands? For example, most people aren't too picky about toilet paper, but some only use a certain type of shampoo. Your first meeting might be long—listening to everyone talk about what products they want and why—but it could be interesting, educational, and even fun.

Is your group interested in buying environmentally and socially responsible products? Take a look at the Good Guide: This online consumer research tool ranks thousands of products based on more than 600 criteria, including health hazards, environmental sustainability of production methods, labor and human rights practices of the producing company, use of animal testing, and so on.

  1. Decide on a schedule. Unless your buying club is ordering perishable food, you'll probably want to order only once every month or two, or even once every quarter. You can always adjust the schedule if you need to.
  2. Choose shipping and distribution locations. You will need a place where you can receive large quantities of items. This could be a single location—like someone's workplace, especially if it's staffed during the day—or more than one. For example, you could have your shipment divided and delivered to four homes, to make sure no one is stuck with piles of stuff. Choose a place where everyone can meet and divide up the goods.
  3. Research your options. Have each person research purchasing options for a different type of product. For example, if your group decided to buy three brands of shampoo, someone needs to research whether you can buy directly from the shampoo company or from distributors, prices, minimum order requirements, shipping options, and so on.
  4. Meet and plan your order. Once everyone has finished their research, get together to share your findings. Decide which companies or distributors you will order from and figure out the price per unit, such as how much members will have to pay for 16 ounces of dishwashing liquid or a roll of toilet paper. Decide how much of each product to order. This may require some negotiation, because you may have to meet minimum order requirements or unit requirements. For example, you might have to order toilet paper in units of 120 rolls. Keep track of how much people agree to buy, preferably on a spreadsheet that does the math for you.
  5. Create a group bank account and make the first orders. Have everyone make an initial deposit and prepay the estimated cost of their order. Use the account to pay for all orders.
  6. Have a distribution party. After all orders have been received, meet to divide everything up. You can make it fun by having a potluck.
  7. Decide what to do with any excess. If you come out with surplus goods, you could divide them up, store them, or ask members to buy them from the group.
  8. Decide on your next round of orders. You can plan your next round of orders at the distribution party or handle it later, perhaps by email.

Bring your own containers. Some buying clubs order things in large containers and redistribute them into smaller containers. For example, you might order shampoo in one-gallon bottles, and then have everyone bring empty individual-size bottles for refill. This saves an enormous amount of plastic and money, too.

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