x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Cafes and shops continue to ignore water price limits

Despite warnings and reports, the Ministry of Economy's consumer protection chief says food outlets are still "taking advantage of the consumer".

ABU DHABI // Food outlets across the country continue to overcharge customers for bottled water, despite recent press reports and a warning from officials that the practice is illegal.

The Ministry of Economy requires restaurants to sell local water for the same regulated price as shops.

But earlier this month, a survey of 60 restaurants and cafes by The National found that almost all sold local water at vastly inflated prices. One increased the price by more than 2,000 per cent, and mark-ups of more than 1,000 per cent were common.

The average price was calculated at Dh28 - a mark-up of almost 300 per cent on the supermarket average of Dh7.50.

Half of the surveyed food outlets in Abu Dhabi and Dubai served only imported water and not the cheaper, local options, and not one of the restaurants that served local water complied with the price law.

But most outlets in malls in Abu Dhabi and Dubai surveyed by The National claimed that they did not know about the rules.

"It doesn't apply to coffee shops and restaurants," said Jen Dellos, Costa Coffee's operations manager in Abu Dhabi's Al Wahda Mall.

She said she could not comment on whether Costa would change its prices, but she added that "if it's the law, we need to follow it".

The coffee shop sells a 500ml bottle of Aquafina at Dh5 but an official at the ministry said the price should not exceed Dh3. The ice cream shop next door, Morelli's, also charges Dh5.

Dr Hashim Al Nuaimi, the ministry's head of consumer protection, told The National that any more than Dh3 for a bottle that cost Dh1.50 in a store was regarded as "taking advantage of the consumer".

He called the practice "unfair, completely wrong, unacceptable and actually illegal".

Although many of the fast food outlets were charging lower prices for their water, others in Al Wahda Mall were making substantial mark-ups. The chocolatier Galler, for example, charges Dh8 for a small bottle of Arwa.

In almost every case, the shops' managers professed ignorance of the law.

Some restaurants sold only expensive imports. Bloomsbury's charges Dh13 for a large bottle of Acqua Panna, while Starbucks sells a small, 300ml bottle of Highland Spring for Dh6.

A worker at Barista coffee shop, where a small bottle of Jeema costs Dh4, said the prices were high because the outlets needed to pay taxes and mall fees.

"I had no idea about this law but there is more expensive than our water here," he said. "The decision is up to the mall management to change the prices."

Restaurants in malls were some of the worst offenders charged even more. Japengo in Dubai's Ibn Battuta Mall charges Dh10 for a small bottle of Masafi, with a large bottle costing Dh16.

Nearby, Finz Mediterranean sells a small bottle of local water for Dh8. Khalid Farahat, the restaurant general manager, said he had not heard about the law.

"Nobody knows of this law in the mall's restaurants," he said. "They should send a letter announcing it properly in the newspaper that it is not allowed but no one informed me."

If the law were properly announced, he said, he would change his prices because "we must follow the law". "How are we meant to know if the Ministry of Economy doesn't make an appropriate statement?" he asked.

An increasing number of consumers have been complaining about being overcharged for buying bottles of local water across the country.

Fiona Drew, a Dubai resident, said she had paid Dh10 for a small bottle of local water at Baskin-Robbins in the Atlantis Hotel.

Abu Dhabi resident Roula Khabbaz was charged Dh16 at Le Meridien hotel in the emirate for a small bottle of local water and Dh20 for a large one.

Customers who are overcharged should call the ministry's consumer protection hotline on 600 522225 to report the restaurant.

The hotline is open from 7.30am to 2.30pm; once a complaint is registered, members of staff promised they would "follow-up with the consumer". However, they did not specify whether or not restaurants would be fined.