Thanks to growing awareness about wasteful packaging (save our world~), eco-conscious stores like Unpackt and Scoop Wholefoods are now becoming somewhat mainstream in Singapore.
What makes these stores different from your typical chi-chi health food store is that they dispense food (both dry and liquid) from large clear bulk bins or “kegs”. You dispense the amount you want and pay by weight, which reduces both packaging waste and food waste.
Technically, they’re not totally “zero waste”, although it’s certainly an option. Shoppers are welcome to bring their own jars and bags, but at the same time, you can easily get paper or glass containers here, so there’s no real need to plan ahead.
So far, so good. But to me, the real question is: Can these stores really stand a chance against established supermarkets like NTUC or Cold Storage?
Or are these eco-friendly grocery stores way too expensive for the regular Singaporean to afford beyond the occasional Instagram Story?
What are the prices like at some popular bulk food stores?
There are about 9 or 10 of these bulk food stores dotted around Singapore — SecondsGuru maintains a complete list — but to keep things accessible, I visited the 3 most centrally-located, popular stores: Unpackt (OUE Downtown), Scoop Wholefoods (Tanglin Mall) and The Source (Cluny Court).
Though these stores tend to have loads of tempting things like chocolates, dried fruit and nuts, I tried to focus on pantry staples rather than snacks to determine if they could change one’s normal grocery shopping behaviour.
These are the prices per 100g / 100ml (which is how they’re sold) I gathered at the 3 stores. Where there were multiple options, I chose the cheapest one.
|Loose leaf tea||$12||$8.50||$5.50|
|Himalayan pink salt||$0.50||$0.50||$0.80|
|Apple cider vinegar||$0.67||$1.20||$1.25|
|Herbs & spices||$0.90 onwards||$1.20 onwards||—|
|Brown / red rice||$0.55||$1.25||$1.25|
|Laundry detergent||$0.85 (liquid)||—||$1.25 (powder)|
In Singapore, these prices make little sense, because groceries are not priced by volume in supermarkets. (Which is an example of how backwards Singapore is when it comes consumer-centricness… Unit pricing has been in place in the US, the UK and Australia for at least a decade! But I digress.)
So how do we know if bulk food prices are competitive in the first place?
Comparison: Bulk food store prices vs “normal” supermarkets
I pitted my bulk groceries against similar products at NTUC FairPrice and RedMart. Both supermarkets are popular with the middle class, have competitive prices, and have decent selections of health food.
I picked the first item that showed up upon keying in the search term e.g. “raw sugar”. The first item is not the cheapest, but is usually the most popular, so I think it’s fair to say that this is the price that many consumers are willing to accept. Then I divided the non-promotional price of the item into the unit price per 100ml / 100g.
Ready to see how the groceries stack up? To make it easier to compare visually, I’ve bolded the 2 cheapest options in each category:
|Bulk food store||NTUC FairPrice||RedMart|
|Loose leaf tea||$5.50 to $12||$4.32||$10.50|
|Raw sugar||$0.50 to $0.75||$0.70||$0.50|
|Himalayan pink salt||$0.50 to $0.80||$0.58||$0.64|
|Olive oil||$1.12 to $3||$1.54||$1.34|
|Sesame oil||$0.86 to $3.25||$1.36||$1.25|
|Soya sauce||$1.35 to $3||$0.76||$0.62|
|Apple cider vinegar||$0.67 to $1.25||$1.40||$1.38|
|Dried lentils||$0.61 to $0.90||$1.01||$0.50|
|Brown / red rice||$0.55 to $1.25||$0.51||$0.54|
|Quinoa||$1.70 to $2||$2.51||$1.98|
|Oats||$0.83 to $1.05||$0.49||$0.62|
|Raw almonds||$2.80 to $3.50||$4||$2.68|
|Hand soap||$0.98 to $2.50||$0.52||$1.15|
|Laundry detergent||$0.85 to $1.25||$0.24||$0.49|
Surprise! You can actually save money at these zero waste stores
I must admit, I was very skeptical that it would ever make financial sense to do your grocery shopping at these places. I always pegged them as shops where rich people throw money at good causes.
But as it turns out, bulk food store prices can actually be competitive. This obviously varies from item to item, but it’s quite safe to say that if your shopping list has a lot of health foods like quinoa, almonds and apple cider vinegar, then you can actually get quite a good deal at these stores.
For singles and small families in particular, buying only what you need can also save you money.
Personally, I love experimenting with different grains, lentils, nuts, spices and oils, so the low-commitment aspect of these stores are very appealing to me. No longer do I have to commit to an entire bag of turmeric or wild rice for a new recipe; I can just pay a few cents or dollars for the small amount I need to try it out.
If you’re ready to try zero waste shopping for yourself, here are my reviews of the 3 stores I visited.
Scoop Wholefoods review — bulk megastore with huge variety
#02-17/18 Tanglin Mall, 163 Tanglin Road, Singapore 247933. Open daily 10am to 7pm.
Scoop Wholefoods is the largest and most professionally-run of all the stores. If you have the impression that “zero waste” shopping is for smelly hippies, you will be surprised.
Imagine if Muji had a grocery store, and Marie Kondo was store ops manager. Scoop Wholefoods is incredibly clean and organised, right down to the OCD-aligned storage bins.
There are rows and rows of dry goods in clear bulk bins and everything looks top notch. I couldn’t find a single dud in the nut bins or dust in the oat box or anything. If you didn’t come prepared with your own containers, you can easily grab a glass jar (~$1.50 each) and fill it up.
Scoop Wholefoods has a great range of Indian ingredients like pulses, lentils, basmati rice, herbs and spices. The aisles devoted to granola, chocolate-covered things, salty snacks, dried fruit and nuts are also spectacularly distracting.
The aisles also have loads of pre-jarred ingredients and mixes on top, such as soup mixes or protein ball kits with pre-measured ingredients. There’s also a chiller section with (packaged) ice cream, milk and the like.
Finally, there’s also a (hygienically) separate “bar” with nothing but bath, skincare and cleaning stuff where you can DIY facial scrubs and load up on eco-friendly cleaning products.
Prices here aren’t as cheap as Unpackt, but I think they’re quite reasonable given the quality and source. Also, most items are organic and from Australia (even the snacks). If I had to nitpick, it’s that it’s not really all that “zero waste” — stickers are printed and receipts are given, for example.
Unpackt review — cheapest bulk store with more local options
Tanjong Pagar: #03-05 OUE Downtown Gallery, Singapore 068815. Open Mon to Fri 11am to 8pm, Sat & Sun 10am to 6pm
Sembawang Hills: 6 Jalan Kuras, Singapore 577724 . Open Tue to Sun 10am to 8pm.
Although I was really impressed by Scoop Wholefood’s efficiency, hygiene and frankly astonishing range of food, Unpackt was actually my favourite of the 3. This is the shop that I would see myself returning to for regular groceries.
Like a neighbourhood mama shop, Unpackt is small, curated and very local. It’s also significantly cheaper, at least for the pantry items I chose.
The range isn’t huge for each type of product — usually just 1 of each, unlike Scoop which has a lot more variety — and the ingredients don’t glisten like they do at Scoop. But if you’re not fussy, you can get bargain prices here, with items like apple cider vinegar, quinoa and sesame oil beating commercial supermarkets’ prices.
I love that you can get local dry goods like ikan bilis, wolfberries, scallops and dried longan here. (Actually these things can buy at Albert Centre too lah, but I’m lazy.) For snacks, they have old school muruku and ice gem biscuits in kopi hoon tins, which is a nice touch — not everything is super organic and healthy.
For bath and cleaning stuff, they carry products by local brand Green Kulture, which also happens to be a much cheaper option than the imported castile soaps etc. that the other stores carry.
Do note that, unlike Scoop Wholefoods, Unpackt caters more to people who are a lot more committed to the zero waste lifestyle. Although there are a few used glass jars available to borrow, you should ideally BYO containers, especially if you’re a hygiene freak.
That said, Unpackt devotes a lot of shop space to containers like lunch boxes, reusable takeaway cups and the like, which you can purchase and use on the spot. But these weren’t really of interest to me since I was there for the groceries.
The Source review — bulk “healthy” candy store with some groceries
#01-05A Cluny Court, 201 Bukit Timah Road, Singapore 259760. Open daily 8am to 8pm.
Although The Source is usually mentioned in the same breath as Unpackt and Scoop Wholefoods, I found it to be less of a zero waste store and more like a sweet shop with groceries on the side.
In terms of store layout, it could pass off as a mini version of Scoop Wholefoods, with the same immaculate white bulk bins arranged pleasingly.
But since the shop is very small with only 2 aisles, you can see immediately that the focus is squarely on snacks: Chocolate, chocolate-covered deliciousness, protein balls and nuts especially. Vegan sweets — which are a rarity in the first place — are very clearly marked too.
There’s also a small range of groceries like grains, granola, honey, nut butter, oils, teas as well as cleaning products, but I found the prices to be on the higher side.
Unlike Unpackt, there aren’t many pieces of zero waste “equipment” for sale, so either BYO containers or purchase the glass jars (they come in tiny versions too!) to tapao. I believe you can also get paper bags for free.
Before you start shopping, here are a few tips…
All of these stores sell reusable containers of some sort, and some provide paper bags. These take away the stress of planning beforehand. But if you’re intentionally making the trip to get some grocery items, you can save a fair bit of money by bringing your own containers.
First, it’s good to know what you need to get, and what you might and might not find at each store. This helps you to plan what containers to bring.
If you intend to BYO containers for dry food items, it is not necessary to bring your entire collection of pretty mason jars or buy specialty beeswax wraps.
SecondsGuru has a great trip: Come with a bunch of polybags from your junk mail; they weigh virtually nothing. For smaller quantities (like a few nuts or herbs) you can also try used envelopes from the mail, just make sure they’re slit across the short edge.
For liquids like oils or cleaning agents, you can simply repurpose the same packaging that you are currently using. For example, just fill up the same laundry detergent container when it runs out, or bring your empty sesame oil bottle for a refill.
The bulk stores charge by weight typically, so what you need to do is weigh the empty container first, weigh it after you’ve filled it, and then the cashier will charge you for the difference. For liquids that are charged by volume, they may provide a measuring cup so you know how many ml you’re buying.
What would it take for you to change your grocery shopping habits? Tell us in the comments.