BY SACHIN KUMAR
DOHA: Consumers can play a crucial role in checking the hiking of prices of products by neighbourhood shops, also called ‘bakala’ locally. There have been many complaints of neighbourhood shops selling products at high prices. Experts say that it is not possible for the Consumer Protection Department (CPD) to track prices in every shop in Qatar. If consumers become aware and help the CPD, overcharging by such shops can be curbed.
“The CPD officials compare prices in the market with the prices fixed by the government. The same work can be done by consumers if they are made aware about the government-issued prices. They will be able to detect violations by traders and complain to the government departments,” said Mohamed Zafir Al Hajiri, Central Municipal Council (CMC) member from Shahaniya constituency.
“It is almost impossible for the CPD alone to monitor the prices, due to the rising population due to influx of expatriates for development projects,” Al Hajiri told Al Arab.
Small retail shops paste their own price labels on products. These prices are usually higher than those in hypermarkets.
Mishal bin Hasan Al Dahnin, CMC member from Al Hilal, said that the government agencies for consumer protection alone cannot monitor the entire market, especially each neighbourhood shop, on their own. With the population of Qatar rising significantly every year, the CPD will require help from consumers to monitor prices in neighbourhood shops.
The idea of an association with consumers as its members was floated a few years ago to monitor price movements in the market. This idea has still not become a reality.
“There is urgent need for a mechanism to control prices in the market. Consumers should play a crucial role. But currently they have a very weak role, which is the main reason for price rise,” said Al Dahnin. “Consumers should use the complaint boxes installed at various public places,” he added.
According to experts, one of the main reasons for consumers not taking any initiative in this regard is that they fear that they would get involved in lengthy procedures and investigations if they complain about errant traders.
“Consumers should also play their role in monitoring prices because CPD needs their help, because they have more interaction with traders. CPD cannot track the prices of every trader,” said Dr Mohamed bin Jassim Al Muslemani, CMC member from Al Markhia constituency.
Experts say that even though consumer awareness is important, it does not mean that the CPD will shy away from its responsibility of monitoring neighbourhood stores.
They say that greed and profiteering are not the only reasons behind high prices in ‘bakalas’.
“There are many other reasons that force shops to increase prices. Shortage of commercial streets and soaring rents are the main factors pushing up the prices of products. The consumer cannot do anything about this, so the government should act in this regard,” said Al Dahnin.
Al Muslemani said that the meaning of consumer protection was very complicated and there was a need to explain and elaborate on it. There is no authority to regulate how traders fix their prices. Traders should have their own body, which should set parameters for fixing prices of products, he said.
He said it was strange to leave neighbourhood stores to operate according to supply and demand. To justify price rise citing demand and supply was wrong from the religious, economic and humanitarian points of view, he said.
Consumers say that the government should develop more commercial streets or take other measures to bring down rents for commercial property. State-run commercial centres are not doing what they are supposed to do. They were expected to create healthy competition to stop traders from unjustifiably hiking prices. But these commercial centres are more interested in making profits, providing no relief to consumers.
Al Muslemani said some shops double the prices of food and non-food items that are in demand. Consumers wonder why the prices in shops vary when their sources of supply for goods are the same.
He added that prices of products should be fixed by the government keeping in mind their market value and prices in neighbouring countries. The government has all the means to control prices and to curb unjustified price hikes. Traders have invoices of imported products and these can be used to find out the prices of products. The retail prices should be fixed after considering the import cost, operational costs of traders and the purchasing power of consumers.
Some products in the local market, especially medicines, are sold at double the prices in the neighbouring countries. The government should take serious steps to check this.
The profit margins of traders should also be fixed and should not be left to their whims, Al Muslemani said. It has been seen that some traders make profits of up to 200 percent. Such steep profit margins bring into question the role of the CPD, he said.
He said if prices were determined solely by market dynamics, inflation would rise sharply.
“People in Qatar are already complaining about high prices, and they will complain more. When they compare these prices with those in neighbouring countries, they realise that these products are available at significantly lower prices. So they go to these countries to buy these products so that they can save some money. Medicines are up to 50 percent cheaper in neighbouring countries.”
Hashim, a Muntaza resident, said, “Neighbourhood shops are for the convenience of the public. We cannot go to a hypermarket or a mall every time. I visit a neighbourhood shop only during an emergency or at night. I do not prefer to buy things from neighbourhood shops because most of the products are priced higher.”
Dr Mohamemad Ali bin Kubaisi said that the CPD was the only agency for monitoring prices. When the population is rising it is not possible for it to monitor prices, so consumers should also be made a part of the price rise checking mechanism. “We cannot compare Qatar’s retail market with others countries because rents are high here. Also, Qatar imports lower volumes, which means the per unit import cost is high.”
Another factor, Al Hajiri said, was that many consumers buy large quantities that are more than their requirement, and a large portion of it goes into waste. Due to this, it is difficult to gauge the real demand.
According to some experts, very few traders increase their prices out of greed.
“It is not justified to say that profit-making is the sole reason for the price rise; soaring rents is also a crucial factor,” said Al Hajiri.
He said citizens and expatriates should be given some powers so that they can help check the price rise.
“High rentals are a major burden on retail shops. Real estate prices have gone up sharply in the last few years due to population growth. The rent for my shop goes up at regular intervals. We are forced to pass on the rise in rent to customers. We have no other option. The government should take some steps to check the continuous rise in rents,” said a retail shop owner in Najma.