Reprieve for small shops in Abu Dhabi is welcome

Customers and shopkeepers alike will welcome the deadline extension for modernisation of some small groceries. And there are lessons to be learned.

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As readers of our letters-to-the-editor column will know, Abu Dhabi residents are not all convinced that the city needs modern grocery stores with automatic doors, steel roofing, a minimum floor size and CCTV. But there is more agreement that the closure of hundreds of small groceries early this year inconvenienced many people.

So the newly-announced decision to allow those small stores that have not yet closed down another six months to accomplish the required renovations is highly welcome. And the whole process should provide a learning experience for all concerned.

The authorities mandated the upgrade - or closure - of small stores on the basis of health and safety concerns that all of us can understand.

On the other hand, there is the question of convenience. Consumers spent about Dh1 billion a year in Abu Dhabi's small grocery stores, according to a 2011 study by the Abu Dhabi Government. Most people had such a shop in their neighbourhood, and enjoyed the ultimate convenience of speedy free home delivery.

The 1,300 neighbourhood stores, however, were required to change to meet international standards by following food safety and hygiene rules, using modern technologies. The Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority gave the shopkeepers an 18-month warning of last month's deadline, and some retailers managed to meet the schedule and follow the rules. But hundreds failed to do so, many because they could not afford the costs, now estimated by the authorities at between Dh93,500 and Dh137,500. And so they were forced to go out of business.

Now, The National reported yesterday, some small shops not yet closed have been given an extra six months to meet the standards, which will be made clear to them by the Food Control Authority.

This relaxation of the deadline is good news for the retailers, and very welcome for their customers. But giving a deadline extension now suggests that 18 months was not enough time to get the message across.

Officials and retailers alike can learn from this. In future, changes affecting a whole class of shops, however necessary, can be rolled out with clearer advance communication, fuller information and more consultation. Official determination can go hand in hand with clarity and flexibility, so that change can come with minimum disruption.