THE Ministry of Trade, in an official statement yesterday, sought to assure supermarkets they will be given a rebate for providing a 20 per cent discount on the retail prices of flour, oil and rice from National Flour Mills (NFM) on Monday and Tuesday.
An announcement on Thursday by Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar that the Government will give the population a Christmas gift of a discount on the NFM brands of these food items was met with confusion from supermarket owners, who said they were not consulted.
Persad-Bissessar, at Thursday’s post-Cabinet briefing, said retailers would be reimbursed for goods bought between December 16 and 24 and sold at the reduced cost on December 23 and 24.
The planned rebate applies to Ibis, Lotus, Good and Natural, Cuisine and Hibiscus flour in two-kilogramme packages; Ibis, Lotus, Club Select and Hibiscus flour in ten-kilogramme packages; and all sizes of Lotus soya bean oil and rice.
While the gesture was appreciated as one of goodwill in the spirit of the Christmas season, president of the Supermarkets Association of Trinidad and Tobago Vernon Persad said the narrow time frame for application in a peak trading season meant chaos for vendors.
There was also concern most retailers would have bought Christmas stocks before the allotted time and no suggested retail price had been made by NFM or the Government.
The association’s past president, Balliram Maharaj, told i95 FM Radio yesterday that while the Prime Minister’s heart was “in the right place”, the order could be “kind of confusing five days before Christmas”.
Maharaj said he believed it would be difficult for NFM representatives to now change the prices of goods already on the shelves in individuals stores.
Maharaj added it was his understanding the price of oil was already set to drop in the new year.
In a media statement yesterday, the Ministry of Trade stated the stipulated items should, on the allotted days, be available to consumers “at 20 per cent lower than the usual retail prices”.
All other brands not listed by the Government will not qualify for the discount, the ministry stated.
The release further stated: “On behalf of National Flour Mills Ltd (makers of these brands), the Government wishes to advise that a 20 per cent guaranteed rebate will be issued to all flour, rice and oil retailers. All rebates of 20 per cent are conditional upon passing these savings on to consumers.”
Retailers were also provided with a toll-free hotline: 298-4698; and e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org for their questions.
Consumers can also access information on the price changes and their entitlements at the Consumer Affairs Division toll-free at 800-4CPS (4227).
However, while most supermarkets that spoke to the Express said it was expected that a system for rebates could be worked out, getting paid by the Government is “a hassle”.
“The Government is bad pay,” said one Port of Spain supermarket owner. “It’s a set of running around to get your money back. I think a lot of owners will be worried about this as well.”
Another businessman said NFM is a publicly-traded company, with shareholders other than the Government, and while done in good faith, the Christmas “gift” could cause the perception that the Government makes arbitrary decisions about the future of these types of companies and therefore possibly weaken share value.
At those supermarkets checked on today, owners and managers said their biggest challenge at present is explaining to customers that the rebate does not apply until next week.
Sales had not slowed, they said, possibly because most people could not afford to wait to begin their baking for Christmas.
As for the anticipated reaction from the public next Monday and Tuesday, one supermarket owner said while he believed all retailers will adhere to the rebate order, the differences enjoyed by customers will be subject to the mark-up policies of individual retailers.
“Different places have different mark-ups, which usually results in price differences of a few dollars,” the Eastern Trinidad supermarket owner said.
“This mark-up can be based on things like how much a retailer has to pay for transport, number of staff, rent and so on. So this is why the Government should have suggested a retail price.
“If someone buys a keg of oil by me for this amount and then sees the same product for a few dollars less somewhere else, I could be accused to not giving the discount, you see?”