RIYADH: With Ramadan underway, Saudis have been busy preparing for the holy month of fasting.
From fervent pantry stocking to the mad rush for decorations, people in the Kingdom have been scrambling to get their homes and kitchens in order for not only fasting, but spiritual cleansing and feasting with friends and family.
However, as well as supermarket shopping another type of store is just as important for many citizens in the run-up to Ramadan: The discount “abu riyaleen” outlets.
Similar to US “dollar stores” or European Kik shops, the Saudi versions have been steadily spreading throughout the nation.
The first one-stop shop opened in Madinah in 1999, close to The Prophet’s Mosque, and targeted pilgrims. With everything from gifts and souvenirs, to clothes, accessories, cookware and utensils, the store was a trailblazer in terms of the variety of items for sale, at fixed and very cheap prices.
Originally aimed at low-income families, the cut-price stores have now established themselves as popular among shoppers regardless of income or social class.
In recent years the number of stores has multiplied considerably, with Arabian Business magazine reporting a doubling of outlets in the past five years alone.
Marketing specialist Essam Al-Kardawi told Al-Arabiya that discount shops are the product of a widespread consumer culture among Saudis, who are accustomed to excessive purchases of various consumer goods, satisfying a need to buy and spend.
Al-Kardawi said the business model worked because the stores offered the lowest prices by controlling fixed and variable costs.Wholesale product purchases were made in very large quantities, and because of their popularity the shops did not need huge advertising budgets.
Stock was often sourced from China, making items easily accessible, cheap to produce and import, and available in abundance.
However, there was always the issue of sub-standard quality which could lead to items have a short lifespan.
Tahani Abdulsamad, a teacher and mother-of-four, said she had developed a keen eye for which goods were worth buying. “I would never buy electronics as they often aren’t even worth the effort it takes to lug them home,” she told Arab News.
“Things like clothes hangers, laundry hampers, and glass vases are examples of good items to buy from there. Things that are sturdy, have a single purpose, and are easily replaced. But anything you might cook or eat with, I don’t trust,” she added.
However, Abdulsamad still champions the stores, saying that there have been countless occasions when her local shop has come to her rescue. “Some items you just can’t get anywhere else, especially at short notice.”
But while many housewives are devoted fans, some finance and economy experts are not so convinced.
In 2017, local newspapers reported that abu riyaleen stores cost the Kingdom around SR50 billion ($13.3 billion) a year through lost revenues, and in 2018 the Ministry of Commerce and Investment launched a crackdown on hundreds of the stores, forcing many to dispose of faulty items and some to stop trading.
Nevertheless, due to their strong appeal and status in Saudi society, it is unlikely the stores will ever disappear. If the experts are to be believed, and Saudi society is truly addicted to spending and consumerism, it seems that as long as there are people who will buy from them, there will always be abu riyaleen stores.