With the cost of food rising, families are under pressure to reduce spending on even the most basic food items and to come up with some creative solutions. Jane Williams reports
As food prices soar to record highs, grocery bills are eating into consumers' disposable incomes, forcing them to become smarter, more discerning and less wasteful in their shopping practices.
A year ago, Salah Gimish, an accountant from Sudan who has been living in Abu Dhabi's Tourist Club area for 23 years, spent less than Dh3,000 a month on groceries. He never bought anything fancy - just the staples needed to feed a family of five. However, his weekly shop last weekend cost him more than Dh900. Three days later, he was back at the supermarket handing over another Dh300 for extras.
"I spend close to Dh4,000 a month now," Mr Gimish says. "Prices seem to be rising gradually, but every week something jumps. Today, it's chicken. Last week, two kilograms of chicken cost me Dh22. Now it's Dh27; that's a 23 per cent rise."
The cost of grains, fruit, vegetables and meat have risen sharply over the past 12 months and look likely to stay that way. Futures markets indicate the prices of wheat, soybean, corn and palm oil should remain high. The increased cost of these commodities, which are used in many other food products or as feed for livestock, has sparked a ripple effect on prices.
Local retailers say they are doing what they can to keep food costs down, but in most cases their hands are tied.
"Prices depend on international markets," says Georges Mojica, the general manager of the Abu Dhabi Co-operative Society. "Prices are under all sorts of pressure right now, but we'll have a clearer picture of permanent price increases in another three or four months."
In the meantime, Mr Mojica urges shoppers to consider locally manufactured and packaged products, particularly milk, rice and canned food, which often sell for 20 per cent to 30 per cent less than international brands.
Jannie Holtzhausen, the chief executive of Spinneys Dubai, believes the biggest effect on food prices is speculators who manipulate world markets.
"I think weather has very little to do with the prices," Mr Holtzhausen says. "I don't believe something like the Australian floods will have much of an impact.
"It may have an impact on Australian meat for a couple of weeks as they work out transport problems but, as we are switching our meat imports from Australia to New Zealand, it won't have a big impact on our prices."
Mr Holtzhausen says consumers should not to panic or bulk buy their groceries.
"My advice is to buy small quantities frequently to avoid waste or spillage," he says. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation has attributed the rise in most food prices to a shortfall in crop output because of the disastrous effect of extreme weather in some of the world's biggest food exporting countries.
Fires in Russia, a heatwave in Argentina and floods in Australia, Pakistan, Laos, Cambodia and Canada have all affected the price of grains, fresh produce and legumes.
Speculators who trade commodities on the financial markets have exacerbated the price rises, according to a recent World Bank report.
A hike in the price of oil, which affects production and transportation costs, a growing middle class putting pressure on demand and the diversion of arable land into biofuels have also been blamed.
All these factors have led to heftier grocery bills, leaving shoppers lighter in the wallet and the supermarket trolley.
"I really think I buy less now," says Janice Coburg, a New Zealander who has lived in Abu Dhabi for five years. Mrs Coburg, who lives with her husband near the Corniche, gave up her job as a teacher when she moved to the UAE.
She admits that although she has more time now to look out for specials, she has become lazy with her shopping habits.
"I think twice before I throw extras into the trolley, but I'm still spending the same," she says.
"I shop at Spinneys because it's convenient. I have considered shopping elsewhere and if prices keep going up, I guess I will. My biggest compromise is that I don't buy as many organic products as I used to."
Jeena Paul, who moved to Abu Dhabi from India seven years ago, says she buys the basics when it comes to food: rice, vegetables and spices. She still manages to maintain her budget, but admits that it's more difficult these days. Mrs Paul changes products according to prices and refuses to buy even the necessities if the price is too high.
"Onions were Dh14 a kilogram this week, double what they were last week," she says.
"I won't buy them at that price. I'll use up what I have at home and see what the price does."
Lorette Jarwan, who moved to Abu Dhabi from Lebanon six years ago and stays at home to care for her five-year-old daughter, refuses to compromise on organic products when it comes to feeding her child, but it comes at a price.
"I used to go out to a restaurant for lunch every Friday with my husband and daughter, but now we go once a month or maybe every two months," Mrs Jarwan says. "We have really noticed the difference in prices. I'm from Lebanon. Once it was more expensive there than here, now the prices are very similar.
"Everything is getting more expensive, especially organic products; even tomatoes and cucumbers."
Many shoppers have taken to supermarket hopping in an effort to keeping an eye on promotions and sales to pick up bargains where they can. Mr Gimish says he now regularly compares prices at Lulu Hypermarket, Fathima Supermarket and the Abu Dhabi Co-operative Society.
"I think Lulu's is probably the best place to shop for the price," he says.
"The Abu Dhabi Co-op used to be, but not any more," he says. "When you look closely, you see a big difference in price. A carton of mineral water, for example, can cost anywhere between Dh28 to Dh50."
As head of his family, Mr Gimish feels a responsibility to notice the different products and prices to ensure his family has enough money left over for entertainment.
"The more I spend on groceries, the less I can spend on travel or recreation," he says.
"If we need certain things, then we have to buy them. If this means paying more, we have no choice."
However, he says, it's good to keep things in perspective.
"I'm from Sudan, so I can see how high prices are affecting other countries. We are lucky here in the UAE. At least here there is still a difference between salaries and the increased prices, which means we can still afford to buy food."
Top 10 tips to reduce grocery bills
1. Plan your meals around produce on sale that week.
2. Compare sale prices between stores, especially for more expensive items.
3. Buy local label or generic brand goods. In most circumstances, these products are just as good as the brand name, but cheaper.
4. Buy frozen instead of fresh vegetables to save on waste.
5. Stock up on canned food and other nonperishable goods when they are on sale.
6. Plan your meals for the week and stick to the list when shopping to avoid impulse buys.
7. Don't do your grocery shopping when you are hungry.
8. Look for the "mistake" shelf in the bakery. These are baked goods sold at a discount because they didn't come out perfect.
9. Beware of end-of-the-aisle bins, island displays and middle-shelf items. This is where higher priced and impulse products are placed.
10. Make a few sacrifices, such as passing on certain organic products or that pricey cut of meat.
* Jane Williams