SBS Punjabi

Coronavirus impact: Melbourne customers allege ‘exploitation’ by retail Indian grocery stores

SBS Punjabi

indian grocery store

Commonly-used items in Indian households are seen flying off the shelves in Melbourne's grocery stores. Source: Ruchika Talwar


Published 12 March 2020 at 6:18pm
By Ruchika Talwar
Source: SBS

While major wholesalers of Indian grocery items have not increased prices, customers say that shopping for kitchen supplies at retail stores has become significantly costlier.


Published 12 March 2020 at 6:18pm
By Ruchika Talwar
Source: SBS


“The way people are stockpiling grocery items in Australia these days, reminds me of how we panicked in India during the Kargil War,” says Rupinder Singh, a taxi driver as he drives through Craigieburn, a Melbourne suburb with a large Indian population.  

In the age of the coronavirus and panic-buying, Mr Singh recollects how his family and neighbours stacked up bags of rice, flour, sugar and cans of cooking oil at home when India and Pakistan went to war in 1999.

SBS Punjabi has learnt that since the panic-buying began in Australian supermarkets, staff at retail Indian stores in Melbourne have been telling their customers that Australia-bound shipping containers from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have been "blocked for up to two weeks."

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Highlights:

  • Many retail Indian grocery stores have reportedly hiked prices significantly
  • Some wholesalers are citing a two-week waiting period for bulk orders
  • Households are buying upto 100 kg of flour and rice

This has rushed people to these stores and empty out the shelves.

This bulk buying by Indians living in Melbourne has reportedly led retail stores to significantly increase the prices of everyday items cooked in most Indian kitchens.

'Mislead people, forget supply'

However, wholesalers of Indian groceries say that they have sufficient stocks yet and haven't increased prices from their end. They have only alerted their customers, usually retail stores and restaurants, that they need to be patient as deliveries can take longer than usual due to very high demand.

Murali K Metlapalli, the CEO and Director of Indya Foods, a major wholesaler of Indian groceries in Australia says, "we have enough stock for everyone. We have informed our customers that if anyone misleads people, specifically about staple food items like atta, rice, ghee and daal, we will stop supplying to them."

'Why blame the coronavirus?'

However, Mr Metlapalli warns of a price increase in the future due to the devaluation of the Australian dollar.

"The Australian dollar was almost 70 cents to the US dollar last month. Today it stands at under 65 cents. So if prices go up in the future, we can't blame it on the coronavirus. Plus, we can't make existing stocks dearer," explains the Melbourne-based businessman.

But Monica Bansal's experience is quite different.

She not only runs her home kitchen, but is also the manager of a popular Indian restaurant in Melbourne’s Little India. She says stocking up groceries sufficiently at both places has become stressful, "no thanks to the coronavirus".

Ms Bansal says that she had gone to one of Melbourne's largest stores in Carrum Downs to buy "only a couple of things", but ended up doing a big grocery haul, thinking, “what if we don’t get our foodstuff when we need it.”

“In retail stores, prices of daily-use items like flour, rice, lentils, spices and cooking oil have gone up, which is very disturbing. For us, roti (Indian flatbread), rice and daal (lentils) are part of our staple diet. So, we have to pay whatever price is charged,” she complains.

Ms Bansal says that a 10 kg bag of Ashirwad atta (wheat flour) usually costs around $11 but she had to pay $14.50 last week for the same. A 5 kg bag of Daawat Classic basmati rice, which cost her $18 up till last month, was priced at $25 this Saturday.

invoice
Ms Bansal's personal grocery shopping invoice. Source: Monica Bansal


Although wholesalers claim they haven't increased prices, the sudden surge in demand of popular items has led to delayed deliveries. 

“Our order last week remained unfulfilled by major supplier, who is a market leader in Australia. They told us they don’t have the quantity we need. We had no choice but to go hopping around retail stores, which are not only costlier for restaurants, but also understocked,” Ms Bansal rues.

Stocks can be expected to deplete fast when household consumers are seen buying 100 kg of flour and rice in one go, as it happened in a well-known Indian retail grocery store with several branches in Melbourne.

 

'Earning a quick buck'

On condition of anonymity, a shop assistant at the Craigieburn branch of this chain says that “some businesses may well be taking undue advantage of the situation and exploiting people”.

She adds that customers advise them to “not behave like Woolworths or Coles in a time of crisis”.

“Our customers are complaining about increased prices. If supply is less than demand, and looks restricted in the coming few weeks, our business owner has no choice but to hike up the prices. People tell us that being Indian, we shouldn’t do that to our own community,” she says.

The shop assistant also adds that popular “bundle offers” like four packets of namkeen (Indian snacks) or frozen vegetables for $6, have been done away with.

“Now people have to pay $2.25 for a packet that otherwise cost them $1.50 when bought in a bundle offer,” she says.

Are Indian grocery stores advising customers to go easy on their shopping?

“We do advise them once to not panic-buy and create a shortage for others. But many get offended, so we can’t press ahead with our advice much,” she says.

 

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