DOHA: Already reeling from the rising cost of living, limited-income families preparing to send their children back to school from tomorrow are shocked to find that stationery items have become as much as 25 to 30 percent costlier this year.
The shoestring household budgets of these families are already overtrained due to the long summer break during which both Ramadan and Eid Al Fitr fell, making a huge dent in their pockets, so they are hardly left with any cash to meet the soaring back-to-school expenses.
The silver lining, though, is that despite the galloping prices, school materials of different quality are available in the market to suit one’s budget. The prices of these materials vary hugely depending on where one goes shopping.
Thankfully, most backpack suppliers, such as Lulu Hypermarket, Carrefour, Al Raunaq and Ramez, have come out with offers to woo the harried parents, while other outlets have no promotions at all.
Backpacks are available in different colours, shapes, sizes and designs with their prices varying vastly. There is a huge difference in the prices of almost similar items at various outlets. For some items, the difference is as big as 100 percent. Backpack prices, for instance, range from QR50 to QR250 depending on their quality, features, size and design, and on where one buys them.
Similarly, notebooks available for QR20 at high-end shops are available for QR12 to QR14 at stationery sections of shops like Ramez and Al Raunaq.
On average, all these items are 25 to 30 percent costlier as compared to last year, and there are shops where the price rise is almost a shocking 100 percent.
Al Raunaq and Ramez have products that are almost two-and a-half times cheaper than those one can get at fancy showrooms.
A Qatari woman with two school-going children shopping at Jarir Bookstore sounded shocked and surprised when she said, requesting anonymity: “The prices of all the items here are very high as compared to last year.”
She said it was difficult to say offhand just how much the prices were up, but added that an idea could be had from the fact that she had to dole out QR500 more to buy the same items that she had picked for her children last year.
Pointing towards the trolley filled with back-to-school items that she had bought for her daughter Noor, she added: “I buy all these items from Jarir every year. But see this backpack and lunch box, for which I had to pay QR249 and QR80, respectively. Last year, we bought the same items for QR100 and QR40.”
“When I asked the salesman why the items were so expensive this time, he briefly — and unconvincingly — told me that they were made in Germany,” she said.
Another Qatari woman, who gave her name as Fatima Al Dosri, said, sounding equally shocked: “Price rise has become a common phenomenon here. Every year the prices go up. It is high time the government checked this. Else the common people will keep suffering.”
She said the prices of goods in neighbouring countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had come down substantially in the recent past and things were much cheaper there.
That explains why a large number of nationals prefer to buy almost every consumer item, including school materials, from Al Ahsa in Saudi Arabia, sources in the Qatari community point out.
An American mother shopping for her school-going children at Jarir said she found the items quite expensive although they were of high quality.
“These items are much cheaper back home,” she said, not giving her name. “Usually, I prefer to buy stationery and back-to-school supplies for my two children on Amazon when I go home”, she said.
“But this time I was a little lazy, so I am buying them here…I can say that most of the things in Doha are about 30 percent more expensive than in America.”
Asked if the higher prices really mattered in her case, she quipped: “They indeed do… but I have no choice, so I’ll buy some items from Jarir and some from Carrefour and other places where they are relatively cheaper.”
The manager of Jarir bookshop refused to comment on the price rise, saying he needed formal permission from the UAE-based management to speak to the media.
While buyers claimed the prices of back-to-school items were 25 to 30 percent higher this year, the suppliers denied that was the case. “If at all there is a price increase, it is not more than QR2 to QR3 in respect of each item on average,” said a salesman at Ramez. “And this marginal rise is due to the general inflation and the major suppliers charging more,” he added.
Backpacks of all the leading brands such as Disney, Hello Kitty, Marie, and Ben10 are available in different colours, designs and sizes at major outlets. The size of the backpacks vary from 800 to 2,700 cubic inches.
For high school and secondary schoolchildren, backpacks of 1,800 to 2,700 cubic inches are considered the ideal size, while younger students have multiple options. Even a slightly heavy backpack can cause back strain in small children, so it is important to opt for an appropriate one.
Experts suggest that children should not be allowed to carry weight that is more than 10 to 15 percent of their body weight.
For pre-school and kindergarten children, the ideal size of the backpack would be between 600 and 800 cubic inches, while for elementary and middle school students, backpacks of up to 1,200 cubic inches are recommended by experts.
Branded backpacks are, though, quite expensive. Moreover, unlike consumer durable items, paying a little more does not necessarily ensure better quality.
In fact, many branded backpacks are available at half the prices charged by the leading suppliers in Doha. And the same is true of pens, pencils, erasers, sharpeners, notebooks, geometry boxes, folders, scales, stickers and other stationery items.
For example, one may not find a pen at Jarir for less than QR36 a dozen, while at some retail shops one may find the same for QR8. A little strategic shopping can reduce a lot of burden on one’s wallet.
For the price of a big trolley backpack at high-end stores one can buy most of the back-to-school items elsewhere.
For instance, the prices of trolley backpacks at leading stores may go up to QR250 or more, and one may not find a trolley backpack of any size at Jarir for less than QR100, while similar backpacks can be bought at Ramez or Al Raunaq at half the price.
Mohammad Yawar Hussain, a senior staffer at Ramez, said: “Our prices are the best in Doha. We have no competition with anyone. We sell stationery items at much lower prices than any one else because our profit margins are low”. Most of the outlet’s patrons are expatriates with nationals hardly coming in, he admitted. “But our customers are always happy with the prices we charge,” he said.
A customer, Zakaria, at Lulu Hypermarket, said: “I have come here to buy a school bag and stationery for my daughter, but the prices are high. My wife suggested we come to Lulu since we could find all the items under one roof, including grocery items. Now, I have to buy things here despite knowing that the prices are roughly 10 to 20 percent higher than last year as I do not have time to go shopping elsewhere.”
“Although my daughter’s old bag is still usable and in a good condition, whenever the school reopens she needs a new one… And I buy a new one as all her classmates and friends in school would come with new bags so I don’t want her to feel inferior.
“In some cases, parents are helpless as back-to-school is a marketing strategy adopted by business houses to attract children to buy new stuff every year,” added Zakaria.
Not all parents think that way, though. There are some who see the back-to-school season as a good way to motivate their children to focus more on studies by buying them attractive backpacks, notebooks, pens, pencils and other stationery items and lunch boxes when they go to higher grades.
An American father of two daughters, Faisal, buying school materials at Lulu, said: “Back-to-school is a good idea for sending children to school, especially the ones who are reluctant to go to school. It’s an incentive for them to go to school. As far as I am concerned, I am fond of buying stationery for myself and my children. Normally, I buy any stationary item that I think is helpful to my children. They are studying in the American School, they might be having some unused items with them, but I don’t mind buying them new ones every year. Usually, they do not ask for anything they don’t need. My children are excited about going back to school and so am I. After all, this is not going to cost us hell of a lot of money.”
On the issue of price rise, he added: “It is not just that the prices of stationery items have gone up. On average, the prices of almost everything, whether grocery or other consumer items, have gone up substantially in Doha”
Mohammad, a Jordanian who had come to buy back-to-school items for his niece and nephews, said: “Back-to-school has become a common culture in the Middle East. People buy new things every time when children go to school after long vacations. It’s a good idea to make them happy and lure them into studying more”.
“I think the prices at Jarir and Lulu are more or less the same. While at Al Raunaq and Ramez one can save a sufficient amount of money buying things there, one may have to make a little compromise on the quality as compared to what one gets at Jarir and Lulu. But it may not necessarily be real. It may be psychological also. I came here because I saw an advertisement in a newspaper about Lulu Hyper offering some promotion and offer. I didn’t see any advertisement about Al Raunaq and Jarir providing any promotion or offer”, added Mohammad.
He admitted the prices were high and suggested that the government come out with an effective price control policy so that traders do not increase prices arbitrarily. “I can see some stocks of stationery here that are two to three years old. However, they have increased the prices to exploit the back-to-school occasion,” he said.
Another parent, Elingo, who had come to buy school items for his daughter studying in India, said: “I know things are much cheaper in India compared to Lulu, despite the offer prices, yet I am buying them here as my daughter would be happy to see her school bag coming from abroad. These small things make them happy. So I do not mind buying at higher prices.”
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