Friday, December 4, 2009

A trip to the mini-mart

The great thing about the mini-marts -- or what I call a mini-mart; they fancy themselves "Super Markets" -- in the ethnic Malaz district of central Riyadh is that they're situated about every block or so. Locally known as a bakkala, the mini mart is essentially just a step up from a souq (which you may spell as you please).

Now, don't be looking for no fancy cheeses, chunky chicken & vegetable soup, fresh strawberries or gourmet coffee.

But if you're in need of milk, OJ, a cold Barbican apple beverage, ice cream, electrical outlet adaptor, crackers, one of three kinds of cereal or household cleaning products, this is the place to go.

Don't need a full dozen eggs? Just pick 'em out yourself and load up an egg tray with what you need.
No need to bother with your ATM card either. These are strictly cash and carry Mom & Pop operations. Well, Pop anyway.

And while the clerk is ringing up your purchase, don't be surprised if another customer simply comes up, places his stuff on what passes for a counter and forks over some riyals. Line queueing is not a highly practiced custom in the kingdom.

(I would like to take this moment to thank the proprietor of this shop for kindly allowing me to take pictures inside and out.)
The first thing you notice, of course, is the cramped quarters with one-person-at-a-time aisles -- and sometimes apparently no-person-at-a-time -- and goods stacked up to the ceiling.

But here, let me shut up for a minute while you browse...

One of the fun things about shopping at the mini-mart is when you come to the end of an aisle and see that there's barely room to make the turn.

Yes, that is a right turn you see below.

Unlike an American convenience store, the mini-marts here are relatively inexpensive. But, like a Circle K or 7-11, they're easy-in/easy-out.

I'm not quite sure how the clerk keeps track of what the various customers have brought, since the counter is clogged with every imaginable gimcrack and gewgaw, rendering it literally invisible.

So picture our genial host below with, say, three customers all piling their goods up on the several-layers-deep counter area and trying to make change for them all.

This is aided a bit by the fact that there are, practically speaking, no coins to deal with in Saudi Arabia. It's all paper money in 1, 5, 10, 50 and 100 riyal denominations*. (One riyal = about US $0.27) If by some inadvertent stroke of chance you happen to get a product priced in a fraction of a riyal, the clerk is likely to simply hand you a pack of gum as your change. But this is a rare occurrence in any store since products are invariably priced in whole denominations. And since there is no sales tax, what you see on the price tag is what you pay.

I refused the gum one day and the owner reluctantly dug into his cash drawer and proffered a couple quarter-riyal coins ("halalahs"**). I really just wanted to see if there even is such a thing.

Not all mini-marts offer exactly the same goods. At some you can get light bulbs, others offer mobile phone re-charging cards (mobile phone service is generally pre-paid on an as-needed basis) and still others have household knicknacks.

And, like every other store in the kingdom, they're closed for prayer times so it's a good idea to check your mobile phone prayer time scheduler before you head out for a milk run.
*Technically there are also 20-riyal notes, but I've never seen one.
Update: I have since come into possesion of a few. Unfortunately, they leave my pocket almost as soon as they enter.
** One halalah is a hundredth of a riyal. "petrol" runs about 60 halalahs/liter (including full-service pumping), which I reckon works out to about 60 cents/gal -- but then, I've never been known for my math.
Originally published 12/24/09; updated 1/22/10 with various notes.


  1. What, you've never seen 20SR notes? I get them all the time. Maybe they're only reserved for HyperMart shoppers like myself :P. And don't forget the 500SR notes, that every shop assistant hates.

  2. Maybe they only use the 20 SR notes in your fancy Olaya districts! :>)

  3. You should be seeing 20 riyal notes soon - they're pretty common. Whenever I go into little shops like these, I feel claustrophobic! I never imagined that so much merchandise could be crammed into one small space!!!

  4. I guess this blog needs to defer to Susie due to her seniority in the shopping arena. But I swear, I have yet to see a 20-riyal note in my 3 months here.

    The other decor item of note in the mini-marts is their lack of fussiness when it comes to flooring. Like the sidewalk out front, it may be there...or may not.

  5. The owner of this store put (super market)to attract the custmers only ,but it's not real super market it's just mini market and there are alot of mini market in saudi arabia

  6. Thanks for the note, Abdu...and I'm pleased to see that you are making progress with your writing, thanks no doubt to your excellent writing instructor. :>)