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Eat, pray, shop: Egyptians stock up for Ramadan

Egypt's first post-Mubarak holiday has begun, but in the wake of a revolution partly spurred by frustration over soaring prices of food and consumer goods it looks like citizens will be paying more than ever

Ahmed Feteha, Michael Gunn, Tuesday 2 Aug 2011
Ramadan
Photo: Mai Shaheen
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You can hear the shouts from five aisles away: a rising clamour that sets the air abuzz.

Five days before the start of Ramadan and Mohamed Fayez, who works in the electronics section of Carrefour's cavernous supermarket in Maadi, stands amongst his empty rows of shiny gadgets and gleaming home appliances, nodding towards the disturbance.

"You couldn't have set foot in this part for the crowds two weeks ago," he says. "Now it's all about the food."

It doesn't take long for Ahram Online to reach the source. In front of a gateway linking the outsize shopfloor with the warehouse, two dozen shoppers jostle for position, an impatient audience waiting for the show.

A shipment of cooking oil is on its way, the price -- LE7 per bottle, down from its usual LE10 -- make it a hot commodity.

Seconds later a pallet is wheeled through the entrance, stacked high with bulky cardboard boxes. The crowd falls upon it, fathers or their more agile children grabbing twelve-packs and lugging them with satisfaction back to their shopping carts. That's a year's supply of cooking oil bagged.

But it isn't the discounts alone that make Carrefour one of the most popular outlets for Cairo's middle classes to do their pre-Ramadan shopping.

"It's not only the costs, I just like to do all my shopping from one place," says Ali, a visibly weary father of two, pushing a crammed shopping cart, his young daughters perched atop his future purchases. 

Like many of the shoppers with whom Ahram Online spoke, Ali was expecting to pay around LE1,000 for his first load of Ramadan shopping: chicken, sacks of rice and pasta and countless bags of yamish, the assorted almonds, dates, drief almonds and figs that are often the very first things eaten after sundown.

The holy month is widely celebrated in Egypt, where daily work and leisure routines are shifted to accommodate the two main meals - Iftar and Sohur - that end and precede the daylight fasting hours.

People work less but visit each other more. Mosques are packed with prayers but so are living rooms as televisions boom with dozens of new series' specially commissioned for the month. Banks, the stock market and government and private sector enterprises all close doors early.

Perhaps the biggest transformation comes in the eating habits of Egyptians. Food prices typically spike during Ramadan and the extravagant dinners can drive a deep hole in household budgets. On Monday, a survey arranged by credit card supplier Visa said that Egyptians spend 50 per cent more during Ramadan than in any other month.

This year, in the wake of a revolution partly spurred by frustration over soaring prices of food and consumer goods, as well as gross income inequality, it looks like Egyptians will have to stump up more than ever.

Food inflation in Egypt stood at 19 per cent in June versus a year earlier, double the core inflation rate and slightly higher than pre-revolutionary levels. Prices of rice, beans, butter, pepper along with other foodstuffs all recorded large increases. Meat in particular has soared, although Ramadan customs make it a near-essential component of a good meal.

To offset the blow, the Cabinet announced last week that the government would shoulder 50 per cent of the cost of food rations, which tens of millions of Egyptians can buy.

But what's bad news for those tucking into their Iftar may bring a short-term benefit to the troubled economy; the uptick in consumption typically makes the relevant quarter of the year the top economic performer. Food firms gain but so do manufacturers of electrical goods such as TVs, air-conditioners and washing machines. 

"For food companies, Ramadan is equal to two regular months in terms of business," says Ahmed Khalil, a consumer goods analyst with investment bank Beltone Financial. "While many sectors slow down in Ramadan, the food sector booms -- especially dairy and soft drinks -- including their supply chains," he says.

This year doesn't look like being an exception, according to Amr El-Alfi, co-head of research at CI Capital, who says major food firms have weathered the recent turmoil.

"Food is generally a protected sector and it's even more defensive in Ramadan. It's very inelastic. What we might see is a shift within the food sector from high-end brands to middle or lower ones," he explains, naming the food, pharmaceuticals and telecoms sector - specifically Telecom Egypt - as likely winners during the holy month.

Alfi is less optimistic about the white-goods sector, believing its performance is likely to depend on whether showrooms and dealers make steep discounts to coax sales.

"The real estate sector is depressed and new housing statistics are low. Those planning to buy are putting off their plans and weddings are being delayed until the end of the year," he says. 

Marriage and new homes are key sources of sales for household appliances; with both stalling it's difficult to gauge future demand.

Eating, of course, is less optional and shopping at supermarkets like Carrefour is a luxury the majority of Egyptians simply can't afford. Most still buy their supplies from the traditional outlets that served them well long before fluorescent-lit shopping halls became a fixture of the suburbs.

"Food shopping is all about trust, each year I come here to buy yamish because I know I am getting it fresh," says an older lady shopping for dates at El-Abd store in downtown Cairo.

For its modest size, El-Abd seems just as crowded as Carrefour. It's one of the city's most popular outlets for eastern sweets, pastries and ice cream; during Ramadan it stacks its shelves with yamish.

Prices for these, says floor manager Mohamed Ali, have seen a significant climb this year - up more than 20 per cent in the case of imported goods.

Very little is not imported in a typical yamish bag. Kamar el-din, a traditional fruit drink, comes from Syria; ein el-gamal (walnuts) and meshmeshyea (dried apricots) from Turkey; raisins from Iran; and arasya (dried plum) and almonds from the United States. Only dates are Egyptian, although Saudi ones are also on sale.

A brisk walk from El-Abd lies Bab El-Louq marketplace, an old compound housing butchers, greengrocers and simple minimarkets. It's not as polished as modern supermarkets but many Egyptians do their shopping at similar places.

The marketplace, however, looked emptier than usual on the eve of Ramadan, with some shops closed and others displaying few products.

"In the past all classes of the society used to do their shopping here -- the 'pasha's (gentlemen) and the 'bawabs' (doormen) -- now lots of people go to big supermarkets because they think they can buy stuff at a cheaper price," says Haidar, a local shopowner.

Outlets such as Carrefour display major price cuts for some products but compensate it by overpricing other products, he says, noting that the number of 'pashas' that buy from him have declined over the past few years.

"Ramadan or not we can't do the same marketing efforts to lure people as Carrefour, we have to be satisfied with what we have."

However, Bab El-Louk marketplace and its likes still attract many Egyptians who cannot afford to buy their food supply all at once and have to spread it throughout the month.

"It is a hassle to go all the way to Carrefour just to buy some groceries and pay LE1,000 at one time," says Hanafy, a downtown hotelier who lives with his family in Giza.

"Local shops are cheaper but it just takes more time to go around and shop from different places."

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