Shopping in Egypt is a low-key, leisurely affair. Meat from the butcher, vegetables from the greengrocer, and bread and cheese from the ba'el - a small kiosk or sometimes just a hole-in-the-wall. Bargaining is essential - or at least it used to be.
The British supermarket chain Sainsbury's will soon mark the end of its first year in Egypt. In this time it has revolutionized shopping for ordinary Egyptians, and has received an informal fatwa (literally, a religious opinion, but usually a condemnation) for its troubles.
Before Sainsbury's arrival, Cairo's few supermarkets were the preserve of expatriates and rich Egyptians — imported delicacies, such as caviar and Pepperidge Farm cookies were sold by local chains ABC and Alfa in the city's richer neighborhoods at prices well beyond the reach of most Egyptians.
Sainsbury's policy, though, has been to aim for the mass market as well as the wealthy: it bought ABC in 1999, but has also taken an 80 percent stake in popular retailer Edge, which has 100 stores in Egypt — these will eventually be converted into Sainsbury's branches. It is its flagship store though, in the Haram area of Giza, that has caused the most controversy.
The store forms half of a vast mall between the Nile and the Pyramids in a poor area of Cairo — away from the Pyramids Road itself are jerry-built homes surrounded by rubbish and open drains. Its opening weekend saw large crowds — some shoppers, most not — attracted by the store's orange posters and glittering exterior, as well as the promise of low prices and imported food.
Those accustomed to being given food by shopkeepers were baffled by the opportunity to choose their own food; a two for the price of one offer nearly caused a stampede. Families swarmed around counters, but bargaining was discouraged. Most striking of all was the variety — 15,000 products in the 3,500 square meter store.
However, Sainsbury's real success is its cheapness. By selling meat, cheese, vegetables and grains far more cheaply than the competition, it has managed to keep customers coming. It also enraged local shop owners, and attracted the condemnation of local mosques in the process.
One imam told The Guardian newspaper in April that "those unbelievers plan to send hundreds of our Muslim retailers into bankruptcy". Subsequent attempts to restrict Sainsbury's pricing through the courts have been unsuccessful.
But the store has brought competition. Other retailers have been forced to lower their prices, and shoppers are keen to take advantage of Sainsbury's bulk buying policies. More fundamentally, by turning grocery shopping into a family activity, and saving customers time by gathering everything under one roof, Sainsbury's may help to change the way all Egyptians spend their valuable leisure time. — (Albawaba-MEBG)
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