ABU DHABI // Shoppers can expect even smaller bills at some supermarket checkouts this year as more food products are put on the Government's price-monitoring scheme.
The prices of about 650 food items at 40 retail companies have been monitored since the Ministry of Economy switched on its electronic checking system last year.
Dr Hashim Al Nuaimi, the ministry's head of consumer protection, hopes that 1,000 items at more than 300 outlets will be covered by the end of the year.
Last May, the ministry announced plans to cap or reduce the prices of 400 food items.
The system went live on December 1 and now links the UAE's ports electronically, monitoring commodity prices daily in collaboration with co-operative societies and major retail outlets.
After a successful pilot with rice in the first quarter of last year the system was expanded at the end of May to cover wheat, eggs, sugar, oil, flour, meat, milk, chicken, tea, bread and bottled water.
The system lets officials see any supply shortage, how much has been imported and for what price food items are being sold.
"This means nobody can change prices without my [knowledge]," Dr Al Nuaimi said. "It's important because I won't have to send my inspectors to check the prices on shelves any more."
So far five Al Manama hypermarkets, five Al Safeer hypermarkets, two Choithram supermarkets, nine KM Brothers National Company outlets, two Carrefour supermarkets, a Kerala supermarket, four Ras Al Khaimah national markets and five Ras Al Khaimah co-ops have joined the system.
Others include 19 LuLu hypermarkets, an Umm Al Qaiwain co-op, Ajman's fish market, 20 Sharjah co-ops, two Emirates co-ops, a Panda hypermarket, 12 Al Ain co-ops, five Al Dhafra co-ops, two Baniyas co-ops and 10 Abu Dhabi co-ops.
And the ministry is hoping more stores will join the list. Dr Al Nuaimi held a meeting last Sunday to discuss ways of getting more Abu Dhabi outlets on board.
So far, he has received price lists of more than 40 food items from Abu Dhabi co-op, Carrefour and Union co-op. LuLu hypermarkets turned in a list of 30 items to the ministry on Sunday, which was rejected.
"Al Ain co-op gave me a list with 55 items and Sharjah co-op with 100 items," Dr Al Nuaimi said, adding he would need an average of 45 items on a price list.
Ajayakumar PV, LuLu's regional retail manager, said an expanded list would be submitted this week.
Dr Al Nuaimi said the aim was to set prices until the end of this year.
"It's a choice [for shop managers]," he said. "It is social responsibility. Any outlet who wants to come under my umbrella I am ready to support."
But some retailers are less than thrilled at the prospect of giving up control of their pricing.
"There is a cost which we have to bear because prices aren't manufactured by us," said V Nandakumar, the spokesman for LuLu. "You have to pay slightly more when you buy from suppliers who don't follow these prices."
But Mr Nandakumar said the hypermarket had a responsibility to ease the cost to customers of essential commodities.
So far, outlets that have been caught charging more than the ministry limit have been fined up to Dh100,000.
"It is my duty to get them to lower their prices," said Dr Al Nuaimi, who added his task was to keep a balance between the consumer and the private sector.
"The private sector gets profit and the consumer gets a reasonable price."
The price controls were originally due to expire at the end of last year but Dr Al Nuaimi announced last month that they would continue until the end of this year.
The aim is to eventually have shops reduce the price of some of their products by 50 per cent, or to fix them.
So far, they seem to be having the desired effect. The National reported last month that the price of a basket of 40 items in UAE supermarkets was among the lowest in the world.