Egyptians flock online to buy essentials amid coronavirus

Menna Alaa El-Din , Friday 17 Apr 2020

In the past weeks, panic loomed in supermarket aisles, as shoppers hoarded groceries and basic food staples, pushing customers to click their way towards online grocery shopping

File Photo: Two Egyptian women shopping in a supermarket in Cairo, Egypt, December 1, 2019. (Photo: Reuters)

Egyptian Norah Sabry has found online shopping to be the best solution for getting her groceries, as fears over a growing coronavirus outbreak have led to panic-buying and stockpiling of some goods, as well as crowding at some shops.

Whether she needs cleaning supplies or basic commodities like rice, grains, pasta or tomato sauce, Sabry resorts to Amazon-owned online retailer Souq to fill her pantry, to avoid crowding in supermarkets and grocery stores, especially as Ramadan approaches, given the extra shopping required for the Islamic fasting month. 

In the past weeks, panic loomed in supermarket aisles, as shoppers hoarded groceries and basic food staples, leading to empty shelves in some areas and crowding inside shops, triggering moves by the government to limit panic-buying amid assurances of sufficient strategic reserves of staple commodities to accommodate growing demand. 

“I have no other solution, although things, especially during this time, usually arrive late,” Sabry told Ahram Online, adding that the delay in delivery has made her shopping experience more demanding due to having to plan ahead more. 

She added that “it takes at least a week for things to arrive” during the current circumstances, instead of a previous three-day delivery period. 

But Sabry, who previously used to go to the supermarket two or three times a week, has another duty after the arrival of groceries from Souq: disinfection.

“The virus is definitely still a concern so all things must be washed or sprayed with alcohol or Clorox diluted with water,” she said.

Sabry first sprays the bags, empties them and then washes her hands to start another mission: determining which products can be washed with water and soap and which can be wiped with alcohol before usage.

She admitted that she sometimes waits “for several days” as a preventive measure to use some products that she can’t disinfect.

Sabry said she will continue to rely on online shopping for her groceries during the holy month of Ramadan, despite any expected delays that she might face as more people rely daily on e-commerce amid government calls for citizens to resort to delivery services to stem the possible spread of more infections. 

Sabry is not the only time-pressed supermarket commuter counting on Souq to deliver their products amid the pandemic; several people interviewed by Ahram Online said they are using Souq and other e-commerce platforms to purchase necessities. 

New mother Yousra Samir said she recently turned to online shopping “due to fear for her baby’s health.”

“Online purchasing is very important because everyone is afraid … I want to purchase thing for the baby but I can’t go out to purchase them so I use Souq to buy them,” she said, adding that she has even bought a gift for her husband online, due to the imposed restriction in movement. 

Good news for online commerce? 

Egypt's e-commerce sector has been projected to see a boom in recent years, even before the spread of the outbreak. 

Electronic financial transactions in the country are estimated to be worth $2 billion, including online direct purchases and airline and hotel bookings on the web, organisers of Egypt’s E-Commerce Summit said last year.

The country is a rising star of MENA’s B2C E-Commerce, with growth rates of above 30 percent between 2019 and 2022, according to a report by MENA B2C E-Commerce Market in 2019.

Amazon’s Souq told Ahram Online that it is has seen an influx of new customers in Egypt in the past few weeks, as well as more frequent orders from existing customers.

“We are also seeing more retailers and sellers keen to get their businesses online via our marketplace,” it said. 

According to Souq, the current top purchases by consumers across Egypt were grocery-related categories, namely food items, and purchases related to hygiene, including disinfectants, sanitisers, and cleaning products. 

“We have also seen purchases increase in lifestyle categories including kitchenware, appliances, toys, and sports. This is a reflection of the change happening around working, studying and staying at home,” the retailer said. 

Despite the increase in purchases, Souq admitted that some customers “may have experienced delays in delivery” due to “the deployment of higher health and safety measures” which it deemed necessary to be able to serve its customers in a safe manner. 

“We will continue to innovate and build capacity across our fulfillment and delivery networks to meet this surge in demand,” it said, adding it is currently working around the clock to upgrade the safety processes across its supply chain, fulfillment and delivery networks, in line with its global best practices in operations. 

On hygiene, Souq said it has raised the frequency and intensity of cleaning at all fulfilment and delivery networks nationwide, and implemented a number of measures to ensure safe deliveries and return pick-ups. 

The measures include deliveries that can be left unattended, requiring associates to maintain a safe two-metre distance, and removing requirements for customer signatures, Souq said, as well as encouraging customers to use electronic payment methods for contactless deliveries. 

Other e-commerce platforms have also upped measures to provide an ease in shopping experience amid a rise in online shoppers due to the virus.

Dina Gobran, general manager of popular peer-to-peer shopping website OLX Egypt, told Ahram Online that its main challenge at present “is to adapt and cope with the continuously changing market situation, to help and support its users in these difficult times.” 

“Our top priority is to provide a safe and secure method for our users to buy and sell on our platform, as these are times where people are trying to save money by selling or buying items that are not as accessible using previously traditional means,” she added. 

Surge includes medical supplies 

Shoppers rushing online to make their purchases are not just after groceries; there has also been a surge in sales of medical supplies, mainly face masks and gloves.

Both sets of products have seen soaring demand since the start of the pandemic, and prices have risen accordingly. 

Prices of face masks have reached more than EGP 250 ($15.81) from a previous EGP 12 per box for locally produced masks, and EGP 1,200 for imported US-made masks, which were previous sold for EGP 250 per box. 

Egypt said last month it is temporarily halting exports of face masks, anti-infection supplies and alcohol for three months to meet the high demand in the market.

On Thursday, Egypt set the prices of raw ethanol, hand sanitisers and gloves nationwide, in an attempt to crackdown on rising prices, promising hefty fines and jail sentences for violators. 

The acute shortage of gloves and masks in the country has even led doctors to shift to online shopping to find the essential supplies.

Omar Gad, a doctor at a Cairo hospital, told Ahram Online that while he was not new to the online shopping experience, he still turned to Souq in particular to buy gloves, face masks and sanitisers amid the shortage and rocketing prices. 

“Pharmacies now mainly allow the sale of masks and gloves [as single items only], and with calculations, the wholesale of the item would be very high in pharmacies,” he said.

Gad, who uses the medical supplies and disinfectants he buys at the governmental hospital where he works, due to the shortage there, admitted that, while wholesale prices of some supplies might be higher on the online platform than in pharmacies, it was still “understandable.”

As the shortage persists, Egypt has upped measures to crackdown on manufacturers of defective face masks nationwide, especially as the shortages of the masks globally has created a black market full of scams and stolen medical supplies. 

On masks, Souq said it “strictly prohibits the sale of counterfeit products.”

It also added that it investigates any claim of counterfeit goods thoroughly, including removing the item, permanently removing the bad actor, pursuing legal action or working with law enforcement as appropriate. 

“This is the time for e-commerce more than any. The self-isolation at home is enough proof of its urgency. You don’t need to leave the house or touch any surface to purchase what you need,” Gad said. 

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