x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Clean up small groceries, don't force closures

Abu Dhabi's plans to modernise its long-serving neighbourhood grocery shops will come at a cost that many owners will not be able to afford.

Abu Dhabi's plan to modernise all 1,300 of the capital's grocery stores is based on good intentions. Some shops are undeniably insalubrious, inefficient and downright unpleasant. Higher standards will surely appeal to customers.

The Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority's way of reaching this ideal, however, threatens to create difficulties for retailers and shoppers alike. It's not too late to rethink the process.

As it stands, shopowners will be obliged to renovate their premises at a typical cost of about Dh180,000. But the average small grocer, official figures say, has just 45 square metres of floor space and serves fewer than 10 customers an hour. Where will he find space for the required storeroom? And how can he pay for modernisation?

Authorities might consider improving standards first by inspecting and shutting down the worst offenders. That could give other owners an incentive to improve. At the very least, the renovation requirement should be accompanied by loans on generous terms to help retailers survive the transition.

There also needs to be a distinction between raising health and aesthetic standards, and regimentation for regimentation's sake. Why do all stores have to conform to a cookie-cutter format? This requirement is unneeded. Owners can decide, within safety norms, how to configure their shops for their clientele.

Taken together, the planned changes amount to gentrification of grocery retailing. The experience in many countries shows that gentrification can be a positive process.

However, such revival and improvement of retail or residential areas is usually fuelled by private-sector energy and investment. Where changes are made by government fiat, those precious assets may be much harder to find.

The big winners in this process may be big-brand retailers, already well on their way to expanding in the UAE. For example, there are plans for 16 new Carrefour Market shops, much smaller than the hypermarkets that are associated with that brand. Choithram, too, is planning new smaller stores. These well-funded outlets will be poised to take up the slack as traditional corner shops are forced to close.

The negative side of gentrification is the loss of the natural, "organic" evolution that gives shops, blocks and neighbourhoods their distinct looks, tones and flavours. The challenge is to cut away the sector's real problems without slashing at the healthy social fabric of the city's neighbourhoods.