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Be a smart consumer

Today is International Consumers Day and Mona is out on her routine shopping rounds. She prefers to spend a little more time examining what she is about to buy rather than carelessly dropping products into a shopping basket and moving forward.

“It takes a longer time, but it’s almost intuitive for me. I have to check expiry dates, the state of the package and a few other things,” she says as she looks for her regular brand of tea amid a plethora of colorful packages on display in this major store.

In a word where consumerism sometimes seems to dictate life, Mona remains a lucid and alert consumer, maintaining a margin of autonomy and decision-making among buyers bombarded with goods. But Mona’s protection as a consumer is not on her shoulders alone. The government, civil society and suppliers all have a role to play, as well.

“I always experiment with stores in order to get best price tags possible,” she says, as she stops before the yogurt. Here she spends a few minutes comparing production dates between different brands before she picks one–the most suitable in terms of expiry date and brand preference.

“I feel comfortable going to crowded stores because high consumption would naturally translate into fresh products all the time,” she says. At the fresh cheese station, she insists to try the old Roman cheese she is about to buy to make sure the taste reflects adequate storing. “The cleanliness of the store matters. Not only do I have to see clean floors and walls, but I have to smell this cleanliness,” she says. As she stops in front of the poultry fridge, she says that she keeps an eye out for stores with adequate freezers.

Muhsin Abdel Wahab, the head of el-Kobba Society for Consumer Protection, praises this kind of consumer lucidity and hopes it spreads. “Unfortunately, not everyone in Egypt is aware of their right as consumers and ways to pursue this right,” Abdel Wahab says. His association is one of 14 non-governmental organizations in Egypt that work with the Consumer Protection Agency, a government body that ensures consumer laws’ implementation.

In 2006, the consumer protection law was passed in Egypt to regulate the relationship between suppliers and consumers. Among many stipulations, the law commits producers and suppliers to provide accurate product information, perform according to health and safety standards, and offer free samples of goods. It also gives the consumers the right to take legal action when violations occur and to be compensated upon receipt of inadequate products or services.

Abdel Wahab works on drafting information campaigns to raise consumers’ awareness of their rights. “Ahead of occasions, we like to send out fliers. Like at the prophet’s birthday, we send out bullet points for people to make sure the halawa (traditional moulid sweets) they buy is in good shape. We do the same ahead of the grand bairam when meat consumption is high,” he says.

Through his NGO, Abdel Wahab also trains youth to conduct similar awareness-raising activities. He also receives consumers’ complaints and follows up with them. “We either opt for friendly settlements between consumers and suppliers or we take the legal path by relaying the complaint in question to the Consumer Protection Agency." The Kobba Society for Consumer Protection regularly puts out price-comparison charts between major food suppliers.

On International Consumers Day, Abdel Wahab emphasizes the importance of getting receipts after making purchases. “Without a receipt, you cannot go back to the supplier and reclaim your rights when there’s a problem with a purchase,” he says.

In order to be an alert shopper, Abdel Wahab has some suggestions. “Expiry dates written bilingually are not always the same. Make sure you check both the English and the Arabic dates. Packaged meat needs to have a red rectangular stamp that assures you that the meat is coming from a trusted source. And as you buy the tahine (sesame paste) and halawa (sesame paste-based sweet), know that when it’s too white, it means a harmful coloring substance has been used.”

Suppliers have an equal role to play in consumer protection. Ibrahim Mohamed, who works at the Carrefour chain, points to a flexible return policy as one form of consumer protection. “In electronics for example, you can return almost anything, even if defected, except from things that touch the human body, which is a Ministry of Health regulation,” he says. Clothes–but not under-garments–can be returned.

“In the food section, we have an in-house doctor to check everything we receive from suppliers before we display them. We handpick all our vegetables although we receive enormous quantities.”

Mohamed also underlines an extensive complaint strategy, whereby complaint boxes are emptied every evening and complaints submitted to the higher management by 8 AM the following morning. “We hold weekly roundtables at the end of the week, whereby we invite our customers to present their complaints and suggestions to department heads in an interactive way,” he says.

For Mona, it is good to learn that complaints are taken seriously by suppliers and by the government. As she comes to the end of her shopping trip, she checks the receipt closely to make sure everything she bought was properly included and calculated.

“Our protection is everyone’s responsibility," she says. "While we need to be always alert, our suppliers need to gain our trust by providing safe and sound products.”

The consumer protection hotline is: 19588

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