Signposts indicate that we are five minutes away from our destination. Sure enough the colossal cement block resembling a warehouse emerges into view. On the outskirts of Alexandria, Carrefour is so situated that those leaving or entering the city cannot miss it or resist the temptation of dropping in. The practical reason is of course that the construction of this gigantic building no way would have been possible inside the already bulging, overcrowded city.
A spacious car park is alphabetized and numbered for fear that people might forget where they had placed their cars in this uniform allotment. It boasts of endless row upon row of shiny cars whose reflection of sunlight during daytime is almost blinding. Entitled as the city centre, a number of multifarious shops that vary from restaurants, to clothes, to gift shops, including worldwide trademarks like Guess that sell shoes at a thousand Egyptian Pounds (L.E.) a pair, a multi Cineplex and a space that includes videogames and provides entertainment for children, encircle Carrefour.
It is obvious at a glimpse that this is no haphazard or whimsical business project that was established at the spur of the moment from the meticulous details and impeccable organization. It is well-known that Majed El Fouteem, the major mastermind behind this French global chain√É¬≠s expansion into Egypt, along with an expansive think tank, spent three to four years studying its viability, down to every last minute detail.
Structured to be practically identical to all the other Carrefour’s over the world, this hypermarket is a no-nonsense building with little to display when it comes to its aesthetic qualities. But then again, that is not the purpose of the building√É‚Äì.. a totem of our postmodern, rapidly globalising and globalised age par excellence, managing to combine an almost stoic uniformity and impersonality in appearance along with an unprecedented diversity in what it offers.
An abundance of vertical neon lights are located on the ceiling that forms an intricate maze of steel pipes as well as the odd surveillance camera that is barely perceivable, and emit an almost hospital-like atmosphere. Kenny G, Mohamed Mounir a well known Egyptian pop singer, as well as Shania Twain are all heard in the background respectively, and the loudspeaker every now and then makes announcements in English, French and of course Arabic.
What is this hypermarket primarily about then? It is about size, variety, and abundance, abundance to the nth degree. Providing everything√É‚Äì well almost everything that an individual or family could possibly need, want or not. Carrefour offers what Egyptians would say in a nutshell form, in colloquial Arabic ” min al ibira li al saroukh,” meaning from the most tiniest product such as a needle to something as out of the way as a rocket. Furniture, travel bags, tapes, clothes, books, toys, cookery ware, duvets, bicycles, electrical appliances, top of the line laptops, even a whole row of different variations of “al sheesha” with an assorted choice of flavours and of course food.You name it and you probablywill find it. Britney Spears’ necklaces, the heroine and role model for the teenagers of our day and age are weirdly juxtaposed with the Quran on the other side of the row. Identical orange and yellow mugs and plates are stacked right up to the ceiling, giving off the effect that they might fall any minute. One could not think of the purpose of such presentation, apart from the affect it produced of showing off the quantities of stocks, their might, that form an implicit attack on your senses as if saying “try and escape buying if you can”. Nobody would think of choosing the plate at the top, when it is just the same as that at the bottom.
That same effect was reproduced when I came to the television sets. Fifty or so in number, different sizes and trademarks, glare out at you, most of them tuned on the same channel, forcing me to blink as the images blurred into one. Just pick what you want, haul it into your trolley and you can always have it sent right to your doorstep wherever you live, free of charge with a guarantee, as well as always being able to return the product if you find it faulty or if you change your mind, which is something close to a nightmarish experience if you try this elsewhere, neat right???
Conveniently being able to buy everything from the same place is an asset that most of us, here in Alexandria, are not used to, having been accustomed for years on end to run around town to comply with the simplest but undoubtedly various needs, which is why Carrefour is so popular. Many months after its opening, people remain there every single day until the wee hours of the morning, being practically forced to leave. Customers vary in nationality and social class, a man in a “Galabeya” and jacket passes two women conversing in French.
The criterion that Carrefour uses as a measurement of its success is its daily sales, which are apparently thriving. This success has prompted rumours that have not yet been verified, about the opening of two more Carrefour branches, one somewhere near Al Mamoura in Alexandria and the other on the highway from Suez to Cairo, which will lead to the recruitment of quite a number of employees, providing an opportunity for graduates in a job market fraught by unemployment.
However, how popular can Carrefour be in a country that is suffering from an ailing economy, where nearly fifty percent of its population is illiterate, and most families can barely make ends meet providing just the basics of life? Glancing at most of the trolleys, it was noticeable that many of them were empty or contained just food.
“Even though we are a very consumerist society, especially women, ‘el mum’ (food) is what people buy most and it is what constitutes the main share of our sales. We are a nation that loves eating and is food-oriented, most people cannot even wait till they reach the counters, before they start munching away at or drinking something, despite our constant requests that they do not do that,” an employee at the hypermarket states.
“It all depends on the psychology of the customer, some people know that they cannot afford things available here so they would not even think of coming, while others are curious and opt to come, spend a nice time, take a good look at things even though they are not going to end up buying anything, which is something that we offer that many other places don’t, you can look, ask about and leave, no strings attached”.
This brought to mind many a negative experience that I had had of rude, frowning, disrespectful shop assistants or owners when they had found out that after looking at their products or trying them out, I had decided not to buy as I did not like the product; they canmake you feel uncomfortable as if you had committed an unforgivable sin.
Does Carrefour really live up to the myth that it is cheaper than anywhere else and are the price ranges suitable for any individual across the social spectrum? Another employee who preferred to remain anonymous says that “some things are cheaper and some things aren’t, we have to create some sort of balance don’t we? but we do present products with varying prices to suit all incomes, for example we make available ovens starting at 300 L.E right up to ovens that cost several thousand, the client can choose whichever falls into his price range and by the way Egyptians are very astute buyers, they will only buy something if they feel that this is a bargain and that it is the best price on the market. We also depend primarily on the idea that people often don’t come here to buy what they need but that we create for them things that they might want, it is the same concept that was used in promoting mobile phones, we all managed very well without them before, but they are so easy to have now that people are made to feel that they are necessary and can’t live without them. Whole families come and by the time they leave, each individual will have seen or bought something they like, if it is a child he/she would have whined until their parents buy them the toy they like, teenagers might go for tapes, CDs, mothers and wives usually prefer stuff for home and so on√É‚Äì..”.
With the advent of hypermarkets, long gone are the days that I remember as a child. If you had a close relative abroad, you would give them a long list of things you needed, because they were not available here, or the quality, size, and variety would be very limited and not up to standard;. Yet, there is something about such places, the way things are stacked and the service are very impersonal, faceless in a way, as they are made for mass consumption. At your local “ba’al” or supermarket the owner would probably have seen you growing up and whom you would call “amou” or “tante”.
At the risk of sounding sentimental, Tante Tuna, the owner of the supermarket that we deal with, has known me and my family for practically forever. She knows what I do for a living, the chocolates I like and when it is Ramadan, El Eid or any other occasion, I have to pass by to tell her “kul sana wa hadartik tayeba,” wishing her well without needing to buy anything. I know her sons and all those who work there by name too, and I smile at them if I happen to pass them on the street. I guess that is part of the price that we all have to pay for modernization.
But do we? Both may co-exist as they seem to be doing, for even though many people feared that the opening of such big multinational hypermarkets with unimaginable capital may negatively affect the small-time supermarkets that will not be able to compete and will gradually disappear, that does not seem to be the case. Not everybody feels comfortable going to Carrefour as some traditions die hard. Even those who do go to buy their weekly supply of food from there, will still need the odd thing or two during the week from the supermarkets that are close by.
On my way to the bathroom at the Carrefour, I noticed a crowd of people lining up in front of the many ATM machines, people who were probably tempted beyond human resistance and had ended up buying more than they counted on. “Om Sameh” the nice lady (who was prohibited to accept ‘baksheesh’ tips) being responsible for the cleanliness of the spacious and impressively clean bathroom that included special facilities for handicaps and babies, a rarity overlooked in most places, said that she was happy working there and that the administration was good.
“All kinds of people of different nationalities come here, but most of them are ‘mabsooteen’ (well-off),” she said. When I asked her if she would buy her stuff from there she very honestly with an inborn wisdom, openness and contentment replied”this place is not for the likes of us, we are ‘ghalaba’, the most we can wish for is to go in and have a quick look and then leave. But that does not mean that we envy those who can afford things, because ‘ili yebos lihad huramit ale aishito’ (meaning that if you look at what others have, you just won’t be able to carry on living)”.
photos: Mohamed Abul-Einein
Al-Ahram weekly – Egypt Gets Hyper