At The Grocery Store

Did you know you have to buy groceries in Saudi Arabia just like you do in San Diego or Biloxi or Southampton?

Indeed, it is necessary to acquire food, dish soap, and toilet paper if one expects to maintain some semblance of normality. While there exist hundreds, if not thousands, of little neighborhood stores and miniature supermarkets, there exist five primary choices (six if you include newly arrived Danube) for grocery shopping in Riyadh.

Closest to where I live is Carrefoure, a French store modeled after the Wal-Mart Supercenters taking over the American landscape. Half the store contains normal grocery items, while the other half contains things one would normally purchase at a department store. It’s possible to buy bananas, berries, and ice cream, as well as a blender you can take home and use to make milkshakes – all in the same trip. Carrefoure is a major source of grocery purchases for both Saudis and expatriates. The store offers primarily European brands, but includes a spattering of American and Asian brands. Their primary selling point is convenience. There are at least five in Riyadh, all of which are convenient to a freeway, making it easy to stop on the way back to one’s house or apartment. I’d estimate (and I have no numbers to back this up) Carrefoure owns the majority of the market share in this city of 5 million.

Close on the heels of the French grocers comes Panda and HyperPanda. Of indeterminate international ownership (they may be Saudi in origin for all I know), Pandas are purely grocery stores, while the HyperPandas are of the same supercenter construction and layout of Carrefoure. Again, they offer primarily European brands, and they, too, offer easy access via major freeways. Most notable is the fact that, because there is no letter “P” in Arabic, the name is actually spelled with the corresponding “B” character. So, the literal translation is Banda.

If a shopper is looking for American brands, the primary source is Tamimi, formerly Safeway. Tamimi is a prominent Saudi family name, and Safeway changed its name a few years ago to reflect a growing need to reflect Saudi ownership. The stores are pure grocery stores, offering both European and American brands. But, pure and simple, they offer the widest selection of American brands available to shoppers in Riyadh. In particular, Tamimi has been the only consistent source of American frozen foods, which, good or bad, is a selling point when it comes to convenient food preparation. Unlike the two previously mentioned store chains, Tamimi is more neighborhood oriented and found deeper into the city. As far as I know, there is only one Tamimi available with freeway access. I pretty well split my shopping between Tamimi and Carrefoure.

Two other supermarkets deserve mention. Though much smaller, Othaim and Halwani markets offer a large presence in the city. They’re pure grocery stores, and they can be found both next to freeways and deep within the residential areas of Riyadh. One more to mention is the newly arrived Danube, found within the newly built Hayat Mall. Danube is an upscale supercenter, offering high quality durable goods, as well as both European and American food items. Danube offers nearly as many American brands as does Tamimi, but is not nearly as convenient to get to on the way to the house.

While this may be normal to some folks, I find it novel how they handle produce here in Riyadh. Here, the shopper selects and bags their produce. Then, they take it to a kiosk within the produce section, where the bag is sealed – the produce weighed – and a price label is placed on the bag. The checker simply scans the label. Tamimi was the last hold out where the checker was required to know price of each item; but even they have begun to convert their produce sections.

Long gone are the souqs where one would buy spices, meats, and other goods. I’m sure they may exist to some degree. It’s possible to find individuals selling spices and fruit on the sidewalk in front of stores. On the whole, though, the romanticized image of the spice souq is gone. The 21st Century exists even in Riyadh. Maybe that’s a good thing.

Copyright, Greg Hubbard, 2007.

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