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Shopping? I can hear the hoots of laughter and snorts of derision from my family at home as I write this. I am the ultimate caveman shopper. It is to be avoided if at all possible, and when unavoidable, a direct raid on the target shop is carried out, (once I have established that it offers value for money). Browsing is a non starter, I am not going to be sucked into buying anything I don't actually need. The only exception to this rule is if I go to a d.i.y. superstore, then I will gaze at the arrays of power tools and gadgets on display. Then my wife will drag me away and it will be back to normal. As I said, caveman.

So, send me to a foreign country armed only with two suitcases containing clothes and a few other life essentials, and find somewhere to live, and .....oh, I need stuff to equip the apartment with, and I need to eat. This will entail Shopping. Oh No!.

My first few weeks were in an hotel in the city centre of Riyadh, and it was located across the road from the Kingdom Mall. So it was here that I had my first retail experiences in KSA.

The KM is an upmarket establishment, with designer shops aplenty and an impressive food court (mostly western or international brands) and handy for a low quality evening meal if too tired / hot to walk further. The only non designer shop was a branch of Debenhams, which is hardly the place for me. But at least there I was able to observe and learn some Saudi shopping etiquette.

The most important thing is that there are some shops that I, as a single male, cannot go into. Shopping is segregated, and if there is a sign that says "Families", that means women and accompanied children only. In the food court, even the fast food joints are segregated into Families and "Singles", ie me. The fact that I am not single, and am part of a family is irrelevant - if they are not with me, I mustn't mingle. It would really confuse a Glaswegian at the fish and chip shop (yes there is a "London Fish" outlet in the KM), to whom "single" means "without chips".

Next, the opening times. The sign on the door might say Open 10.00 am to 10.00 pm, but this is a rough guide. It works in Debenhams where things are slightly organised, but certainly not for the small retailer, who will come and go as he pleases. But the tricky bit is guessing when the shop will be closed for prayer times. There are five prayer times each day, but the times seem to vary depending on the day of the week, and when sunrise / sunset is. You can be in a shop when an announcement is made (in Arabic) and then the shutters come down and you are asked to leave - sometimes in that order. Some prayers times are as short as 20 minutes, others are longer. So you have to find something to do until they reopen, or of course you can just go away without completing your shopping. There is no point following the crowds, they will be heading towards the mosque (every shopping centre has one). Heading to a coffee shop would be nice if they weren't closed too. So I have learned to carry something to read, and to just sit down on a bench in mall and be patient (more hoots from home). 

Mall-waiting backfired on me badly one Friday several weeks ago. After lunch I went to a shopping centre off the Olaya Road and after a while was turfed out of the shop for prayers. I found a bench, got my book out and started to sit out the wait. Quite often there will be fellow bench-lurkers, but this time there were none. Time passed and nothing reopened. After forty minutes I started to worry. After an hour, I moved to leave. I found the main doors and those to the car park to be locked. I started walking around looking for signs of life or an exit. There wasn't even a security guard to be seen. I guessed they were all in the security control room watching me on CCTV, laughing and running a sweepstake on what this stupid white man would do next. Eventually I found some workers in doing some shopfitting and one of them kindly took me to a service corridor and out via the loading bays. Otherwise I might have been there a very long time.

There is a large Carrefour supermarket off the Northern Ring road, and it has a good range of food, clothes, electrical and household goods. It was here that I did most of my shopping for the apartment. When they make their announcement that the shop will be closing for prayers, all those who have understood it make a dash for the checkouts. These people are wiser than me and know when prayer time will be and will have just about completed their shopping. Carrefour makes its announcements quite a few minutes prior to pulling the shutters down, so there is time for most of them to get through the tills and leave. The first time this happened to me in Carrefour, I got my partial shop to the back of a checkout queue, but didn't make it through before the tills were closed and I was ushered out. I could leave my trolley in the shop, find a bench and then keep an eye out for the store reopening. Fortunately there weren't any frozen purchases in the trolley. On a later date I so was engrossed at the back of the supermarket looking at the small-print on different bottles of bleach that I missed the announcement and ensuing exodus. By the time I realised what had happened the tills were closed and shutters were firmly down. Help! - trapped inside a closed supermarket - what shall I do? The answer was to get on with my shopping. I came a cross a couple of ex-pats pushing a trolley, I said "Hello" and started a conversation.  It turned out that they were not only aware of Carrefour's lock-ins, but they actually timed their shopping to take advantage of them, and said it was much more quiet and relaxing. That's cunning.

One of the first things I bought from Carrefour was a toaster and kettle combination set. When I got back to the apartment, the toaster worked fine, but there was something wrong with the thermostat on the kettle and it kept cutting out when the water reached about 80 degrees. The next day I took the kettle back (left the toaster in the compound as it was fine, but was now in used condition). I had the receipt, so an exchange should be easy - or so I thought. First of all, the Customer Service desk man asked what was wrong with it, and I explained that it did not work properly. (I didn't think his basic English would cope with the word "thermostat"). So he said "Wait a minute, then went off with the kettle. He came back, and declared that "it works".so we had an argument in pidgin English and with much sign language. He pointed inside the kettle - he had put water in it and started to heat it, and the light had come on. This was resolved by him summoning someone who spoke reasonable English, and we eventually agreed that the kettle was defective. I was offered a refund, and was asked for the receipt. You can imagine where this was going to lead - not having the toaster and packaging, and not wanting a refund but an exchange. I will concede that not taking the toaster back was an error on my behalf.  We were in mid discussion on these points when the prayer time announcement was sounded. The Carrefour guys concluded with "after prayers", and went off. I relocated to my bench. Half an hour or so later, Carrefour reopened, and I went back to resume where we had left off. Unfortunately for me, the prayer break had coincided with a shift change and I had a new person to deal with at Customer Services. I started off again with :Do you speak English?", and he replied "yes please" - always a bad sign. So we went through the "Kettle-not working"-filling-with-water-seeing-the-light-come-on-"it's-working"-"Yes-but-not-properly" routine again. A new "better" English speaker was summoned and a full 30 minutes later I walked back out with a replacement kettle. Consumer rights and expectations are different here, even with European companies like Carrefour. But I am in their country, and I have to adapt to their ways. We live and learn, I am sure there will be many more shopping experiences to come.





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