At a large supermarket in Dokki, the woman’s hands are moving in a mechanical manner as she tosses goods into her cart. At least 30 cans of fava beans, and another 30 of tuna. Beef, chicken, milk and yogurt. More milk, butter, pasta, rice, cooking oil, olive oil.
She parks the cart near the cashier, then grabs another one and goes into the aisles once more.
“Precautions against corona,” the manager of a supermarket said to explain the crowds of buyers in his store. Panic buying began after the government suspended schools beginning March 15. “People realized it was serious,” he said.
Similar scenes could be found in big supermarkets across Cairo over the past few days, as uncertainty about the effects of coronavirus drove upper classes to stockpile goods, from food to cleaning products. Large supermarkets have stock and supply agreements that can withstand the spike in demand. People with lower incomes, however, have stuck to their normal shopping patterns at markets and smaller grocers.
Despite the heavy traffic in Hawary Supermarket in Giza on Tuesday — which at times forced the staff to shut the doors altogether — all the shelves were fully stocked. Several brands of rice, pasta, tuna and beef were available, and a truck was unloading more goods at the back of the store.
Customers are buying lots of nonperishable foods such as rice, legumes and oils, in addition to cheese and meat, according to Eid El-Hawary, the store’s manager. Cleaning supplies are also in high demand, but Clorox is out of stock, he said.
However, such supermarkets make up just 2 percent of all retail outlets in Egypt, according to a report by the United States Foreign Agricultural Service. Small grocery stores make up 98 percent of outlets, and provide 75 percent of food sales.
Such stores can be found everywhere in Egypt, but they don’t enjoy the large storage capacities of supermarkets. And despite the corona panic engulfing the country, they haven’t seen a jump in demand.
“My sales are lower than usual,” said Mohamed Hussein, a shop owner in the working class neighborhood of Boulaq. “Schoolchildren are among my main customers, but schools are now suspended.”
Ahmed Mohamed, a communications engineer, thinks shopping frenzies are mostly for rich folks who live in gated communities and don’t mind spending several thousand pounds in a single shopping trip. They also have the storage and fridge space in their houses for the extra food, which most people don’t.
And those who can’t shop this way end up hurt.
“I went with my wife to buy some nonessential stuff: Nutella, white toast and canned tomatoes. We didn’t even try to get inside big supermarkets such as Seoudi and Fresh Foods because the cashier lines were out the doors,” Mohamed said.
Noran Hamed, a teacher who lives in the Tagamoa area east of Cairo, said she could not find vinegar in the supermarkets, probably because people use it as a disinfectant.
Some families have tapped into their savings to store basic goods, said a former member of the foodstuffs chapter in Cairo’s Chamber of Commerce, who declined to be named. But supermarket chains remain well stocked despite customers’ stockpiling.
Food companies are “driving the panic,” said Hamdy, a shop owner in Nahia area of Giza. Some of their sales agents insinuate that factories could stop production soon, especially if the government imposes a curfew, he said.
As a result, shop owners stock up on goods, while infecting their customers with the same state of panic, he said.
But customers’ reactions to the pandemic are largely dependent on their real incomes, which on average have deteriorated sharply as a result of the government’s 2016 currency devaluation backed by the International Monetary Fund. The poverty rate rose to 32.5 percent among Egypt’s roughly 100 million people, according to the official income and spending report issued last year.
Additionally, the majority of Egyptians work informally and don’t have access to credit. In June 2019, there were just three million credit cards in Egypt, according to central bank data. That’s why the stockpiling craze hasn’t reached customers in Boulaq, where Hussein’s shop is located.
“People here live hand to mouth, they don’t have the money to hoard goods,” he said “My customers would buy a pack of sugar or tea, a box of ghee, nothing more.”
Hamdy in Nahia concurs: “Demand here is normal. Those who buy their needs monthly are still buying monthly, those who buy daily are still buying daily.”
Yehia Kasseb, head of the foodstuffs chapter of Giza’s Chamber of Commerce, confirms that demand patterns vary in different neighborhoods according to income brackets. Fears of serious food shortages are “understandable yet unjustified,” because the country’s strategic reserves of food items is “very safe,” he said.
The chamber hasn’t observed shortages in any goods, otherwise “we would have seen price increases,” he says, which hasn’t happened so far.
Shipping delays could result in a 5–10 percent price increase in some imported goods, according to Matta Beshay, member of the importers chapter of the Federation of Egyptian Chambers of Commerce.
The true indicator of whether there’s a shortage aren’t supermarkets, but subsidized food outlets, where all goods remain available, according to the former member of the foodstuffs chapter in Cairo’s Chamber of Commerce.
The hoarding craze has infected the haves, but the have-nots, who are the majority, don’t bother, he said.