In early fall last year, with the COVID-19 pandemic in full force and temperatures beginning to drop, area restaurant owners began looking for ways to keep patrons warm as they dined in the open air. The demand for outdoor heaters across the country suddenly soared, turning the commodity into a vital and scarce resource.
That’s when Zev Friedman, founder of the nonprofit Co-operate WNC, decided the time was right to officially launch the WNC Purchasing Alliance, a program aimed at buying a variety of products in bulk to reduce costs.
“[The restaurant owners] needed someone to do a bulk purchase of heaters and get it from the manufacturer,” Friedman says. “We weren’t even ready, but we said OK. We were like, ‘This is going to be a stretch, but we want to make it happen and get some practice,’ and it actually went really well.”
In its public debut, the Purchasing Alliance, with help from Mountain BizWorks, Asheville Independent Restaurant Association and the Asheville Brewers Alliance, coordinated the purchase of 239 heaters for around 75 different users, including restaurants, breweries, churches and private individuals, despite nationwide product shortages.
“We were able to directly contact manufacturers, and because we were looking for more than 200 heaters, they would answer our phone calls. If you weren’t, they wouldn’t even respond,” Friedman explains. “It got [local businesses] something that they couldn’t have gotten otherwise at an affordable cost.”
For Friedman, it was the first step for the Purchasing Alliance’s longer-term mission: offering Western North Carolina residents a new way of buying — one that can lower costs and shift how consumers choose to spend their dollars.
“It’s just a no-brainer when it comes down to it,” says Friedman. “When you buy in larger quantities, you can get more attention from whoever you’re buying from and more chances to negotiate prices with them.”
Teamwork makes the dream work
The concept of bulk purchasing to reduce costs has been around for centuries, says Chris Clark, the Purchasing Alliance’s head of research and coordination efforts.
“Any grocery store that we walk into is using bulk purchasing. They are buying a bunch of products at a scale that an individual can’t purchase. And when they do that, they’re getting discounts on that price and they can earn some money and offer individuals an opportunity to get products,” he explains.
One of the most common types of consumer-level bulk purchasing is grocery co-ops, such as Asheville’s French Broad Food Co-op, where costs for food and goods are shared among consumers who pay membership fees and receive discounts on purchases.
The Purchasing Alliance looks to expand that model by offering several purchasing categories for consumers, from bulk building materials and environmentally friendly cleaning products to farm equipment and garden supplies. And rather than serving individual needs, the alliance aims to go big by working with organizations, businesses, municipalities and other entities to harness the power of bulk purchasing on an even larger scale.
Individuals can still buy products from the program, Friedman adds, though their prices will not be as deeply discounted as larger organizations. Membership in the purchasing alliance starts at $20 per month for a business or organization with an annual budget under $20,000 and can range up to $120 a month for those with an annual budget of $300,000 or more.
Green energy, green savings
But cooperative purchasing isn’t limited to physical goods, adds Don Moreland, who operates Solar CrowdSource, a platform that helps cities launch community-based solar energy campaigns.
The platform’s latest project is Solarize Asheville-Buncombe, a community-based bulk purchasing program for solar energy and equipment. Led by a coalition of organizations that includes the city of Asheville, Buncombe County, Green Opportunities and the Blue Horizons Project, the program launched on April 7 and is open to all individuals, businesses and nonprofits in Buncombe County.
“The No. 1 reason why people are considering or have gone solar is the fact that it was clean and renewable,” Moreland says. “People are really concerned about the environment and they want to do their part, and solar is a way for them to do that.”
But, he adds, cost is among the main reasons people haven’t made the leap to clean energy. One of Solarize Asheville-Buncombe’s goals is reducing the costs associated with solar energy and solar panel installation by using the power of collective purchasing. Solarize Asheville-Buncombe can solicit competitive bids for solar equipment and pass those savings on to its members. The program then offers solar power on a tiered system that lowers the price as the number of participants grows.
Solarize Asheville-Buncombe has set a goal of enrolling at least 58 solar panel installation projects to meet its lowest-cost tiered pricing of $2.45 per watt, which Moreland says should save members roughly 20% or more on the average cost of solar energy in WNC.
“We already have 306 signed up for the campaign and we’ve never seen this kind of enthusiasm for a campaign this early,” he notes. “Normally we might have 150 people signed up, but the folks in Asheville and Buncombe County really surprised us with how enthusiastic they are.”
With more dollars in play, bulk buyers also have expanded opportunities to align their purchasing choices with their values, points out Clark of the WNC Purchasing Alliance. By “voting” with their dollars, cooperative groups can emphasize supporting businesses owned by women or people of color or buying from companies that practice ethical or environmental methods of production or sourcing, he explains.
“If I’m buying food every week and if I’m buying conventional, I’m voting for pesticides and herbicides and all of these things to be put on the land,” Clark continues. “And maybe I can’t afford to buy organic if I’m doing it on my own, but combining my purchases with other community members could potentially get that price down.”
If a buying group is large enough, it might even have enough clout to influence how manufacturers create their products.
“We can say, ‘I’ve got 1,000 people that are interested in this product, but we are actually really concerned about water use, because it’s tied to energy.’ That might influence them to change practices,” Clark says. “There’s a real beautiful possibility to influence things in a positive direction.”
And while those goals are aspirational, Solarize Asheville-Buncombe is already putting the concept of ethical buying power in place. In addition to offering lower startup and operating costs, the program is partnering with local nonprofit Green Opportunities to offer job training opportunities and workforce placement to income-eligible residents of Asheville and Buncombe County.
All together now
Solarize Asheville-Buncombe is currently enrolling new members; sign-ups to receive a free evaluation for solar energy end in late September.
“Sometimes having a deadline really motivates people. I know it does me,” Moreland maintains. “So for those procrastinators and people that are just kind of waiting, then the deadline is a way to motivate.”
While the Purchasing Alliance is likewise still in its infancy, Friedman notes, it will soon make its second product available, this time organic seed potatoes sourced by Living Web Farms in 5-, 25- or 50-pound increments and at a 20-cent-per-pound discount to alliance members.
Plenty of details remain to be hammered out.
“I think one of the challenges is [that] we’re trying to figure out how we meet needs across the different organizations,” Clark says. “We are working and open to working with a lot of different people and different types of organizations, so I think that’s going to take a little bit of finessing to figure out what products are actually needed and wanted by the diverse organizations.”
Perhaps an even bigger challenge will come from shifting the individual-focused mindset of many Americans toward the notion of working together for shared savings and a unified cause.
We’re not necessarily used to thinking collaboratively, Clark observes.“[The Purchasing Alliance] is actually providing an opportunity to step into the juicy and challenging world and relating with other people to try and bring something into the world that we want to see,” he says.