For the fourth time in less than eight weeks, Walid Zein was using social media to advertise his discount fair for china and cutlery items in Cairo. After having had his earlier fairs in south and north Cairo, Zein opted to host this edition in Al-Obour, at the eastern zone of the capital.
The three-day fair offered big discounts on china, porcelain, cutlery and other tableware, as well as kitchenware that is sold by the kilo.
“Cairo is a very big city with very diverse economic zones,” Zein said, “and with the exception of the upper class and maybe a small segment of the upper middle class, today, everyone is buying everything either on big discounts or on installment packages; in our fairs we offer both,” he added.
For nearly eight years, the purchasing power of many in Egypt has been challenged by a sequence of devaluations and increasing prices of basic commodities and services. In November 2016, the Egyptian pound lost close to 48 percent of its value when the country launched a tough austerity scheme ahead of getting a $12 billion loan from the IMF. This month, the pound lost yet another 35 percent of its value ahead of another $3 billion IMF loan. In total, the exchange rate of a US dollar versus the pound went from under EGP 8 per $1 in the summer of 2016 to LE24.35 per $1 this month.
“Certainly, it has had a big impact on the prices of china, porcelain, cutlery and other table and kitchenware that is mostly imported,” Zein said.
Egypt has a relatively limited and not always very appealing selection of tableware. Sales assistants at several Cairo stores estimate that that around two thirds of the items they carry in their stores are imported.
“Before the devaluation of 2016, we used to have a wide range of products from European and Asian countries. We had items on the expensive end from France and items on the inexpensive end from Romania. We also had items that are relatively expensive from Japan and less expensive items from Indonesia, Malaysia and of course China,” said Maher, a store manager of one of the higher-end tableware chains in Cairo.
He added that since the devaluation of 2016 most importers have refrained from buying big stocks of the more expensive-end items. During the years between November 2016 and June 2022, Maher added, the market was dominated by products imported from China and Turkey. However, he said that with the “severe dollar crunch” even these lines of imports were made difficult.
According to Medhat, a seller at a medium-range-prices table and kitchenware store in Dokki, “the business is suffering, partially because of the difficulties related to the imports, partially because of the very intimidating prices and partially because of the failure of Egyptian products to appeal to shoppers.”
Randa, who plans to get married at the end of the year, was one such shopper at Medhat’s store. She complained that the budget she had allocated to buy kitchenware and tableware for her new house is falling far short of covering the “nice imported items that were already very difficult to choose from given the limited selection on display.”
At the same time, she said, there are not that many appealing made-in-Egypt alternatives. “There are some interesting items on Instagram but these cannot cover the bulk of items that one needs for a new house; it is really difficult.”
Since he began working as an importer and wholesale trader in early 2016, Zein said that the average price of imported and locally manufactured items have soared by an average of 50 to 60 percent. “Needless to say, even for local manufacturers, things are difficult. First, because they need to import some material for their production and second because the prices of electricity, gas and so on have increased,” he said. Inevitably, he added, these costs are reflected in the shopper’s bill.
This, he said, was “the starting point for the idea of touring the country with fairs where we sell almost everything by the kilo and not by piece or by set as it usually is the case.” For these fairs, Zein explained, he has been using up all his previous stocks by selling them at a discount. “I take down close to 20 percent of the price that a set would usually cost,” he explained.
He also has stocks of sets where some items were broken or damaged. Those are now being sold by the kilo alongside mixed sets, or sets that did not sell well or are falling out of fashion.
According to Abdel-Sammad, a sales assistant who has been touring several governorates with the “China by the kilo fair,” the items are put in different categories according to their original price and their appeal on the market. This year, in the four Cairo fairs that ended in the last week of October, the range of prices for plain porcelain and china ranged from EGP 35-50 per kilo. For printed items, the average price per kilo stood at around EGP 70.
The fair also has small and big sets of china and cutlery made in both Turkey and Egypt. “Most shoppers who go for the full sets, especially the bigger ones, are women who are planning to get married and are keen to invest in some expensive items. Otherwise, people just go for the more practical shopping list of plates, mugs and soup bowls,” Abdel-Sammad observed.
But not everyone is doing things this way.
Nancy and Nariman are two sisters who attended the Shubra edition of the fair Nancy, the elder sister, opted for full big sets when she got married in 2000, but Nariman, who is planning to get married in December, was “going strictly practical.”
“My budget for shopping is bigger than that my sister had over 20 years ago, but the value of the money is much less,” she said. “I do not think it makes any sense for anyone to over-stretch their budgets to buy items for their daily use and other items to use on the special occasions when they have guests over,” she argued.
Both Nariman and her fiance are bankers, so she is not claiming that she is putting up with the tough austerity that other shoppers may be facing. However, she argued, “for any new couple now everything is so expensive, so one should cut costs where one can.”
Zein agreed that prioritising practical shopping has been in order for a few years already. “For example, more and more we find people requesting the coloured granite cooking pots that would still look pleasant when put on the table because the trend now is the one-cooking-and-serving-pan; before people would have never done this and every house had to have special serving dishes,” he said.
Radwa and Ahmed, both teachers at public schools, who were shopping for tableware, decided to ditch the serving dishes altogether. “We are not getting them neither for meals nor for desserts, we will just get the plates and bowls. Consequently, we are not getting the serving cutlery sets; this is saving us a few hundred pounds which is good really,” Radwa said.
According to Zein, however, what some people could settle for might not be suitable for everyone. “In this business of ours we learn that budgets are not the only factor in the shopping decisions; social norms matter too; this is why we offer everything – more of what everyone would buy of course, but we offer everything,” he said.
Zein is convinced that more and more traders and shoppers will be opting for these fairs because it cuts down on the overheads of stores and consequently on the prices. “It was an out-of-the-box idea and it worked,” he said.
However, he added, the issue is with the imports, “which are likely to still be slow for at least a year to come.” The future, he argued, should be for local production which would be less expensive even if the prices of local table and kitchenware will have to increase too.