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DUBAI: The company that runs one of the biggest supermarket chains in Saudi Arabia, Carrefour, is in talks with the government to try to ease some of the Kingdom’s curfew restrictions amid an unprecedented boom in home grocery deliveries during the coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak.

Alain Bejjani, chief executive of Dubai-based Majid Al Futtaim Group (MAF), told Arab News that delivery orders had soared more than 50 percent across the region. Saudi Arabia recently extended curfew hours to slow the spread of the disease.

“Restrictons on travel are making things difficult everywhere and Saudi Arabia is no exception. We are engaging with the government to try to get some special process for delivery to people during curfew hours,” Bejjani said.

“We fully support the measures that have been taken, but even if there is a curfew, there is a need to make it as comfortable as possible for people. The government has been very understanding,” he added. 

One suggestion is for a special license to enable delivery workers to be on the streets during curfew hours.

Saudi Arabia is to lengthen the curfew hours from 3 p.m. to 6 a.m. on Thursday, and has also announced curbs on travel between different cities and provinces in a move to prevent transmission of the COVID-19 virus. Longer curfew hours also impact the Carrefour workforce which has to travel to stores or delivery depots.

Bejjani said that increased travel restrictions would have an impact on its regional delivery systems. A lot of the produce its sells in the UAE and other regional markets is manufactured in Saudi Arabia. “Saudi Arabia is very important as a consumer market, but it is also a big production center for us,” he said.

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But he was confident that the region would not see the kind of panic buying witnessed in European supermarkets, where shelves have been stripped of goods by worried shoppers. He said that MAF has a strategic stock of goods for three months supply to its outlets, in contrast to roughly 40 days reserve in Europe.

“People in Europe thought they might run out, but we have more in reserve. There has been no panic buying in our stores,” Bejjani said.

But the virus outbreak has led to a big increase in sales at Carrefour stores in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. MAF said that there had been a 50 percent rise in online sales in the first three weeks of this month, and that it was redeploying workers from elsewhere in the business to help cope with the demand.

Sales of liquid cleaners and soaps were up by about 1,000 percent, while there was also big demand for freezers in which to store perishable food, Bejjani said.

Some 1,015 workers in MAF’s leisure and cinema business had been retrained and redeployed in an ongoing program to re-skill them for supermarket work, either in-store or in fulfillment centers and other delivery roles. “It is heartwarming to see how agile and adaptable people can be,” Bejjani said. 
Around 7 new fulfillment centers have been opened in the region since the outbreak began.

MAF, which also owns the Vox cinema chain, has put its ambitious program of cinema construction on hold since the government ordered film theaters to be closed earlier this month. “Saudi Arabia is a great cinema market and we are looking forward to coming back as soon as possible, but right now it is impossible,” Bejjani said.

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He added: “In times of uncertainty, our commitment to our community of customers, employees, tenants and suppliers only becomes stronger. While we are ensuring that our customers get what they need when they need it, we are working with all stakeholder groups to ensure that we come through these challenging times together.”


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