Blue light special

Philip Whitfield

April 23 2012

ASSUIT: K-Mart introduced the phrase to a generation of Americans — the moment when a flashing police lamp announces a surprise special offer in a store, entering the lexicon in films such as Troop Beverlyå Hills, Beetlejuice and Dawn of the Dead.

Egypt’s blue light special moment came the day before the sandstorm hit. Thousands and thousands of shoppers engulfed a phenomenon that opened its doors in downtown Assuit. They came from miles around, professors and students from the two universities nearby, moms and dads, some pushing strollers, generations led by grannies. Singles, all out for fun on the town.

The object of their ecstasy? A grocery store that’s become a cult in Egypt  — Kheir Zaman, Metro’s discount store chain that offers 25 percent savings on food basics such as rice, pasta, eggs and milk, all own-brands that are shaking up the nation’s food-purchasing marketplace.

The spacious store is the 33rd Kheir Zaman in Egypt and is breaking all records. Within a few hours the tills had registered more than LE 100,000, beating well-entrenched Metro stores in places such as Mohandessin by a long chalk.

By 10 pm there were 800 pouring over the shelves. At Midnight a new crowd surged in and stayed on shopping until 3 am. Operations manager Ahmed Fouad sent out an SOS to the central bakery for more dough to bake more batches of bread in the two-deck over upstairs.

The company’s president Mohanad Adly hopped on to the next plane to Assuit, which turned out to be the last one to leave the sand clouded runway. He was reading a printout: LE 8,049.97 at 10 pm. Another 204 customers at 11 pm spending LE 22,846. By 3 am 2,100 shopping baskets and about 8,000 people in all, had passed through the checkouts registering LE 92,000 and change.

By the time Adly arrived another LE 36,000 had been rung up. Never seen anything like it before, he said congratulating 90 new members of staff, almost all of them local university graduates, picked by the ineffable Hanan Houseen, the staff services manager, who had waded through 700 applications and interviewed 400 with Aliaa Salama from the HR department.

They’re absolutely the best you could find anywhere in the world, they said.

It wouldn’t be Egypt if SCAF and officialdom hadn’t engaged in skullduggery. Adly had picked the spot for his second store in Upper Egypt three years ago — the first to open was in Luxor.

The owner of these coveted 1,200 square meters, Dr. Ali Sabra, a doctor whose family runs a well-known chain of pharmacies in Cairo, said when the previous governor of Assuit heard about such a prestigious company coming, he asked for a LE 3 million donation to grease his political campaign. Sabra refused.

Incensed by being asked to pay a bribe to sell toiletries and groceries, Adly dashed off letters, one to Hosni Mubarak. He heard nothing, until a few nights later, watching a TV interview, he saw Mubarak being asked if he’d like to say Hello to anyone? Mubarak responded: I’d like to say Hello to the Governor of Assuit.

I knew the store was nixed, he told me. We pulled the equipment out and put the plan on hold.

With Mubarak on trial and a change of governor, word came that the store would be bribe-free. Dr. Sabra was inundated with offers to take it. I said Kheir Zaman should have the first option and they came back, he said. We paid the normal fees for permits, about LE 315,000, and everything was fine. No bribes. No baksheesh whatsoever.

The shenanigans, which were kept secret, doesn’t explain the phenomenal crowds flocking to the store since last Tuesday’s soft opening and the official opening in the sandstorm next day.

Dr. Osama Nadifi, from Assuit, was filling a trolley. We’ve never had such fresh food at such low prices in such a hygienic environment, he said. For example the other butchers in town sell frozen Brazilian beef, which you can get here as well. But on top of that you can get fresh lamb and veal as well as beef…that’s a big draw.

Also it’s the first food and household items supermarket in town.

Mahmoud Saif brought his wife and their new four-month-old baby to shop. They were impressed. Ouama Nafidi, a big wig in the local community, shopping with her pals, was full of praise.

Dr. Sabra said about 4 million people shop in Assuit. They have to be careful with their money. Nobody expected these incredible scenes, he said. Assuit is a quiet place. But not today. We’re celebrating something very special, the opportunity to enjoy quality and prices the rest if the country has.

Not quite the rest of the country. Metro and Kheir Zaman are in 11 of the 27 governorates. Kheir Zaman now has 33 stores in Cairo, Giza, Alexandria, Port Said, Mansoura, Hurghada, Luxor and Assiut

Together, Metro and Kheir Zaman will have 92 stores before the end of the year, 8,000 employees having built the largest food retail network in Egypt. We’ll be here for the next generation and the ones after that, Adly says, proud of his staff’s accomplishments.

We’re in Egypt for the long haul. I’ve letters from all over the country asking for stores in their towns and cities.

Growth is not without some shady deals by competitors. Apparently with lax security and blind eyes at the customs, dodgy food is turning up even on some of the nation’s prestigious brand-name stores.

Cans of tuna for example. These products don’t carry the white labels in Arabic that prove the products have been authenticated and tested at Egyptian government labs. Some of the stuff being sold by our competitors is rubbish, he says. You have no idea what you’re eating. I wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot barge pole.

On the other hand, he says, when I was in our new Metro store in Giza I saw a tin of tuna selling for LE 49 alongside the regular tuna that retails around LE 6 to LE 7, so I bought it for my own family. Turned out to be pure white tuna fish. Delicious.

Discriminating Arab diplomats have marked out the Giza Metro, opposite the zoo, for late night shopping. Spotting the shelves being loaded up for the opening, one Arab ambassador took his entourage on a Harrods-style spree, spending LE 5,000 piling up a train of baskets at the checkout.

Seems blue light specials are popular with everyone, no matter how much housekeeping’s in the budget.

Philip Whitfield is a Cairo commentator.

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