Why you should care
Because chocolate-covered almonds.
The most prominent advocates of the grocery store bulk bin — yes, there are such people — sing the praises of scooping your own beans for two primary reasons: It’s cheaper and it’s greener. Credit the lack of packaging, which reduces waste and, for the most part, cost. Bulk bins also provide fresher food, allow shoppers to customize quantities and take up less space, which means greater variety. Clearly, bulk is better.
And yet none of those reasons captures why the bulk bin aisle is truly transcendent. That elevated status is due to the samples — an endless array of nuts and candy that scream out to be tried, but not to be bought. Need some raw pecan halves to steel yourself for the strain of shopping? Help yourself. Love black and green lentils but curious about the red ones? Give them a taste. Dying for a dark chocolate espresso bean covered in crunchy almond butter? That might be taking things too far.
I say sample the cherry. Then … buy a high markup item. That way, after you steal from the store, the store steals from you.
Generally speaking, there are two issues to consider when sampling from a grocery store’s bulk bins — sanitation and ethics. The first is fairly easy to resolve. Never reach into a bin with bare hands. Sampling from containers that dispense goods with gravity is a smart way to avoid contamination. Should you feel compelled to sample from a more traditional bin, use a scoop and keep it clean.
Avoiding moral uncertainty is much more difficult, because “sampling” from bulk bins also happens to be stealing. The quantity may be small and the price negligible, but it’s taking something for yourself without paying and it’s not a victimless crime, says Barbara Staib, communications director for the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention. “Grocery store margins are not huge. Every piece of candy, every grape, every banana matters,” Staib says. “Shoplifting is something that comes right off the bottom line for a store.”
That’s easy to forget when you walk into the bulk foods aisle and see chocolate-covered cherries, unwrapped and ready to be consumed. And while Staib would suggest that you exercise some willpower and wait until you’ve paid to eat those cherries, I take a different approach. I say sample the cherry. Then — and this is the key to being an ethical bulk bin sampler — buy a high markup item like precut fruit. That way, after you steal from the store, the store steals from you.
Another option? Shop at Whole Foods, where customers are encouraged to try any item before purchasing it. “The bulk aisle is a great and easy place to take advantage of this policy,” says Whole Foods spokeswoman Liz Burkhart. All they ask is that you keep your grubby paws out of the bins and ask an employee for help. Then, you can go nuts.