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From mystery meat to modern megastore in Pakistan

Until the Costco-like facility opened, shopping in Islamabad and Rawalpindi was haphazard and a hygienic gamble.

May 25, 2008|Kim Barker | Chicago Tribune

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — Everything is at the new superstore: trampolines, motorcycles, skateboards, romaine lettuce, mutton, live crabs, aluminum ladders. A man roller-blades through the aisles, wearing a giant package advertising "super frozen" flatbread.

The floors gleam. The meat is not a mystery. The frozen food stays frozen, and the expiration dates are not fake. There is only one fly in the fish section. Another section is devoted to cheese.

The superstore, which opened April 3, is a revelation for residents of Pakistan's capital and neighboring Rawalpindi. Customers are mostly thrilled so far, at least according to the feedback cards.

"They're saying: 'We're so happy. It's about time. Some good news for a change,' " said Faiz Hussain Awan, the store's marketing manager.

Until the Metro warehouse store opened, shopping in Islamabad and Rawalpindi was haphazard. Customers bought fruits and vegetables at one small store, canned goods and cereal at another, meats somewhere else. Buying fish was akin to gambling with one's stomach. Slabs of beef hung in open storefronts, and no one seemed bothered enough to brush away the flies.

Power outages as often as four times a day meant freezer contents started to thaw before the appliances turned back on. The result was often traumatic. The fancier stores, catering to the Pakistani elite and diplomats, were famous for smuggled foreign products, high prices, missing expiration dates and questionable quality. Buying goat cheese was almost impossible or prohibitively expensive. Returning spoiled food was a joke.

But Metro, similar to Costco and part of the international German-based Metro wholesale chain, has changed all that for people who live here and manage to get a membership card. The first store opened in the eastern cultural hub of Lahore in October and the chain plans to build 35 stores throughout Pakistan.

At the Islamabad warehouse, it's possible to buy more than 20,000 products, all kept in almost 108,000 glorious square feet. There are even warm Metro vests hanging up that customers can borrow so they don't get too cold in the meat section. A wall of flat-screen TVs plays Indian movies at high pitch, and a stereo system blasts songs with lyrics such as "I'm not in love."

"Fabulous," said Atiq Uddin, 26, who runs a refrigeration repair store in Rawalpindi.

"Wonderful," echoed his partner, Mohammed Younas, 57, checking out a new refrigerator for himself.

Store officials said several big hotels in Islamabad were interested in buying their ingredients from Metro. That's welcome news, because even some of the city's better establishments may occasionally subject guests to intestinal distress.

"The cases of food poisoning, we are going to bring those down as well," said Omar Ahmad, the store's manager. "It is an amazing thing happening for the region. Really, we are very happy."

The lower prices at Metro could in theory reverberate throughout the area. Food inflation has been a major problem for many Pakistanis, and many stores sell scarce staples at higher rates than mandated by the government.

A store such as Metro, with its significantly lower prices, could have a ripple effect in part because many of the small-store owners now seem to be buying food supplies at Metro.

Customers push carts loaded with food; fluorescent, dinosaur-shaped kids' chairs; giant stuffed chicken toys; generators and refrigerators. There is even a testing area with electric outlets, to make sure the appliances work, and a return policy.

To get a membership card, people must have a business or be a professional such as a doctor or lawyer, or be a wife of such a professional. This doesn't sit well with customers such as Lubna Naveed, 25, a homemaker who had to ask her husband, a lawyer, to leave work to come to Metro and fill out a form.

"This should be allowed for ordinary people, especially housewives," she said.

But many people have already finagled cards one way or another. Store officials estimate that as many as 10,000 people visit every day. Customer lines are sometimes out the door; the lines of cars spill into the street during peak hours.

Children are not allowed at Metro because of the forklifts that are in some aisles. The lines at cash registers take some getting used to for customers not accustomed to such strict order.

Many Pakistanis, especially the elite, also are not used to getting their own groceries or pushing their own carts. At smaller stores, workers pick out everything. Shoppers just point.

"Nobody pushes their own carts," said floor manager Ahmed Mughal, who said everyone was learning. "They're not used to it. That's why they are complaining."

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