Supermarkets are great places for the new expatriate in Dubai (or anywhere else, for that matter) to stay connected with all that is familiar and normal, when much else is strange, new and disconcerting.
You are certainly spoiled for choice no matter what part of Dubai you find yourself in. Some names, like Spinneys, Carrefour and Choithrams you will see again and again: for the record, there are 31 different Spinneys locations in Dubai Emirate alone and its entirely possible that between the time of my writing this and your reading it, the number will have risen.
Carrefour, the French chain, has fewer outlets, but the large Carrefour supermarkets in Deira City Centre, Mall of the Emirates and Mirdif City Center are much larger than the biggest Spinneys – probably at least double the size. In all, there are six large Carrefour supermarkets, but an increasing number of the smaller Carrefour Markets as well – not as many as Spinneys – but in terms of floor space square meterage, probably not too far behind.
Waitrose and Spinneys
I’ve chosen to start with Waitrose and Spinneys because these are the two chains the new expat will find most “comforting”, as the teeth of culture shock begin to bite.
Altogether many years ago, when I first began my residence here in the UAE, in the Emirate of Sharjah, there were just two Spinneys in which to shop and find the products that we craved from home. One stocked more than the other; this was referred to as “Expat Spinneys.”
Back in the present, in Dubai, Spinneys is still very much identified as the premium expat supermarket. Ironically, the flagship store isn’t even branded as Spinneys, but carries the Waitrose name and is located in Dubai Mall.
It won’t take too many visits to Waitrose in Dubai Mall and your neighbourhood Spinneys to figure out that most of the products are the same although there are more tempting and pricey extras in Waitrose. The supermarket mafia might arrange for me to swim with the fishes for mentioning this, but Spinneys is quite a bit cheaper than Waitrose.
To be specific, a Spinneys bill for a household grocery shopping trip will be about 8% higher than the Dubai average of all supermarkets for roughly the same shopping trolley of goods, while Waitrose is an eye watering 22% higher.
However, there are reasons other than just price why people choose Waitrose and Spinneys over the competition. For a start, there are products on the shelves that people away from home, particularly the UK, can only get here.
As a former Kiwi, the knowledge that my occasional Vegemite cravings can be met is comforting, as is the fact that I can buy New Zealand beef and lamb. There is certainly a large enough array of Waitrose branded goods on the shelves to keep the UK expats happy and though I can’t speak with quite the same certainty about North American brands, I have known enough Canadian and US expats here over the years and none of them have ever complained loudly and vocally about not being able to get the tastes of home. And yes, you can buy bacon and other pork products in a special section of most Dubai Waitrose and Spinneys outlets.
Somewhere between the end of 2000 and the middle of 2001, if memory serves me, the large supermarket Continent in Deira City Centre was absorbed by its even larger French rival Carrefour. This immediately deprived the wits of the ever-amusing “…. saw you in Continent last Friday, dear” line. (“Saw you in Carrefour” just doesn’t have quite the same frisson of double meaning.)
The Carrefour Hypermarkets are big, and they sell much more than just groceries, toiletries, meat and cleaning products. You can buy computers, cameras, phones, TVs, all major and minor household appliances, clothing, DIY tools and accessories – and all this before you even reach the first of the more conventional supermarket aisles.
Carrefour carries a lot of different European, especially French, culinary lines. A word of caution, though. In addition to being big, Carrefour is also quite a bit cheaper for that average household shopping trolley of goods than Waitrose or Spinneys, which is a good thing. But, as a result, at certain times, it can get very full and very busy. I’d do anything to avoid being in a Carrefour late on a Friday evening, for example.
There are two other European style supermarkets in Dubai: Hyperpanda in Festival City and Géant in Ibn Battuta Mall.
Hyperpanda is very similar to Carrefour and even stocks a lot of the same French sourced products and prices are remarkably similar.
Ibn Battuta Mall is a long way from areas of Dubai that I frequent and in all honesty, I haven’t been there for some years now. I recall Géant being a good third choice to the Carrefour / Spinneys duopoly, but it’s just too far to be a viable option for me.
Folks living in the Dubai Marina area and out towards Jebel Ali will no doubt find Ibn Battuta Mall and Géant as convenient as I find Mirdif City Centre or Dubai Mall on my trips over from Sharjah.
Finally, there is the host of non-European Supermarkets, starting with the Indian-owned Choithrams chain. There are sixteen branches of Choithrams operating in Dubai, some of them in quite upmarket locations such as Silicon Oasis, The Green Community and Umm Suqeim. Most Choithrams also have pork/bacon sections, unlike Carrefour, which does not.
You could also extend your experiences to LuLu Hypermarkets and the Dubai Union Co-op for a decidedly non-western supermarket experience. I don’t mean this slightingly; the vegetables at the Co-ops in both Dubai and Sharjah are fresher, better and cheaper in my opinion and the Sharjah Co-op not far from where I live is my preferred choice for fruit, vegetables and herbs.
In addition, they tend to source their produce from closer to the UAE – places like Oman, Iran and Lebanon – when possible, so the food has less food miles if that is important to you. Somehow oranges from Tunisia taste better than Australian ones at double the price or more.
Then there are lots of much smaller “supermarkets” whose names will mean nothing to you apart from the word supermarket in the title. These cater to local, mainly Indian subcontinental clientele, but they are friendly and colourful.
You might have to take your time recognising the products – start with Coke and/or Pepsi and take it from there, but these little establishments offer services like home delivery just a phone call away, if you have one close to where you live.