Carrefour in talks over Saudi curfew challenges

The coronavirus outbreak has led to a big increase in sales at Carrefour stores in Saudi Arabia. (Supplied)
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Updated 25 March 2020

Carrefour in talks over Saudi curfew challenges

  • MAF CEO Alain Bejjani: We are engaging with the (Saudi) government to try to get some special process for delivery to people during curfew hours
  • MAF said that there had been a 50 percent rise in online sales this month, sales of liquid cleaners and soaps were up by about 1,000 percent, while there was also big demand for freezers

DUBAI: The company that runs one of the biggest supermarket chains in Saudi Arabia, Carrefour, is in talks with the government to try to ease some of the Kingdom’s curfew restrictions amid an unprecedented boom in home grocery deliveries during the coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak.

Alain Bejjani, chief executive of Dubai-based Majid Al Futtaim Group (MAF), told Arab News that delivery orders had soared more than 50 percent across the region. Saudi Arabia recently extended curfew hours to slow the spread of the disease.

“Restrictons on travel are making things difficult everywhere and Saudi Arabia is no exception. We are engaging with the government to try to get some special process for delivery to people during curfew hours,” Bejjani said.

“We fully support the measures that have been taken, but even if there is a curfew, there is a need to make it as comfortable as possible for people. The government has been very understanding,” he added. 

One suggestion is for a special license to enable delivery workers to be on the streets during curfew hours.

Saudi Arabia is to lengthen the curfew hours from 3 p.m. to 6 a.m. on Thursday, and has also announced curbs on travel between different cities and provinces in a move to prevent transmission of the COVID-19 virus. Longer curfew hours also impact the Carrefour workforce which has to travel to stores or delivery depots.

Bejjani said that increased travel restrictions would have an impact on its regional delivery systems. A lot of the produce its sells in the UAE and other regional markets is manufactured in Saudi Arabia. “Saudi Arabia is very important as a consumer market, but it is also a big production center for us,” he said.

But he was confident that the region would not see the kind of panic buying witnessed in European supermarkets, where shelves have been stripped of goods by worried shoppers. He said that MAF has a strategic stock of goods for three months supply to its outlets, in contrast to roughly 40 days reserve in Europe.

“People in Europe thought they might run out, but we have more in reserve. There has been no panic buying in our stores,” Bejjani said.

But the virus outbreak has led to a big increase in sales at Carrefour stores in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. MAF said that there had been a 50 percent rise in online sales in the first three weeks of this month, and that it was redeploying workers from elsewhere in the business to help cope with the demand.

Sales of liquid cleaners and soaps were up by about 1,000 percent, while there was also big demand for freezers in which to store perishable food, Bejjani said.

Some 1,015 workers in MAF’s leisure and cinema business had been retrained and redeployed in an ongoing program to re-skill them for supermarket work, either in-store or in fulfillment centers and other delivery roles. “It is heartwarming to see how agile and adaptable people can be,” Bejjani said. 
Around 7 new fulfillment centers have been opened in the region since the outbreak began.

MAF, which also owns the Vox cinema chain, has put its ambitious program of cinema construction on hold since the government ordered film theaters to be closed earlier this month. “Saudi Arabia is a great cinema market and we are looking forward to coming back as soon as possible, but right now it is impossible,” Bejjani said.

He added: “In times of uncertainty, our commitment to our community of customers, employees, tenants and suppliers only becomes stronger. While we are ensuring that our customers get what they need when they need it, we are working with all stakeholder groups to ensure that we come through these challenging times together.”


G20 ministers agree to keep markets open, tackle pandemic supply disruptions

Updated 54 min 20 sec ago

G20 ministers agree to keep markets open, tackle pandemic supply disruptions

  • G20 leaders pledged last week to inject over $5 trillion into the global economy to limit job and income losses from the coronavirus outbreak
  • The coronavirus has infected nearly 738,500 people worldwide and killed some 35,000

RIYADH/WASHINGTON: Trade ministers from the Group of 20 major economies agreed on Monday to keep their markets open and ensure the continued flow of vital medical supplies, equipment and other essential goods as the world battles the deadly coronavirus pandemic.
G20 leaders pledged last week to inject over $5 trillion into the global economy to limit job and income losses from the coronavirus outbreak, while working to ease supply disruptions caused by border closures by national governments anxious to limit transmission of the virus.
In a joint statement issued after a videoconference, the trade ministers pledged to take “immediate necessary measures” to facilitate trade, incentivize additional production of equipment and drugs, and minimize supply chain disruptions.
They agreed that all emergency measures should be “targeted, proportionate, transparent, and temporary,” while sticking to World Trade Organization (WTO) rules and not creating “unnecessary barriers” to trade.
They also vowed to work to prevent profiteering and unjustified price increases, and keep supplies flowing on an affordable and equitable basis.
“As we fight the pandemic both individually and collectively and seek to mitigate its impacts on international trade and investment, we will continue to work together to deliver a free, fair, non-discriminatory, transparent, predictable and stable trade and investment environment, and to keep our markets open,” the ministers said.
They agreed to notify the WTO about any trade-related measures taken to keep global supply chains running and said they would convene again as necessary.
The ministers, however, stopped short of explicitly calling for an end to export bans that many countries, including G20 members France, Germany and India, have enacted on drugs and medical supplies. A key adviser to US President Donald Trump is working on new rules to expand “Buy America” mandates to the medical equipment and pharmaceutical sectors, something that dozens of business groups said could worsen shortages.
The joint statement included the phrase “consistent with national requirements” already used by G20 leaders, which experts say could provide a loophole for protectionist barriers.
Lack of protective medical gear is putting doctors and nurses at risk. Many countries rely on China, the source of the outbreak, for drug ingredients and are struggling to avoid shortages after lockdown measures prompted by the epidemic held up supplies and delayed shipments.
Supply chains are backing up as air freight capacity plunges and companies struggle to find truck drivers and shipping crews. Europe and the United States are short of tens of thousands of freight containers. Shippers struggle with crew shortages and quarantines at ports. Agriculture is also being disrupted.
The ministerial video conference was attended by representatives from the WTO, World Health Organization and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
A senior World Bank official urged G20 members to agree to refrain from imposing new export restrictions on critical medical supplies, food or other key products, and to eliminate or reduce tariffs on imports of key products.
US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer told the ministers during the meeting that the pandemic had revealed vulnerabilities in the US economy caused by over-dependence on cheap medical supplies from other countries. He did not reference the “Buy America” rule specifically, but said Washington was encouraging diversification and wanted to promote more domestic manufacturing to produce more suppliers for the United States and others.
G20 finance ministers and central bankers will also meet virtually, on Tuesday, for the second time in just over a week to continue coordinating their response, the Saudi G20 secretariat said, as worries grow about the debt crisis looming over poorer countries.
Japanese Trade Minister Hiroshi Kajiyama told counterparts that both the public and private sectors should try to avoid shutting supply networks to enable an early resumption of economic activities.
The coronavirus has infected nearly 738,500 people worldwide and killed some 35,000, and has plunged the world into a global recession, according to International Monetary Fund chief Kristalina Georgieva.