Tue | Sep 19, 2017

Cuba opens first bulk goods store, but wholesale still elusive

Published:Wednesday | July 13, 2016 | 7:00 AM
Shoppers walk through the aisles of a new bulk goods store in Havana, Cuba, Monday, July 11, 2016. Called Zona +, the high-ceiling space has racks stacked with large tins of tomato sauce, toilet paper and cooking oil by the gallon. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

Cuba has quietly opened a first-of-its-kind store specialising in bulk goods in Havana, called Zona +, a high-ceiling space with racks stacked with large tins of tomato sauce, toilet paper and cooking oil by the gallon.

It's not quite Costco, and it falls short of satisfying long-standing calls for a wholesale market to support the growing class of small-restaurant and cafeteria owners who have set up shop under President Raul Castro's economic reforms begun six years ago.

But it could help relieve the pressure that those entrepreneurs have been putting on other retail stores by snapping up huge quantities of goods, leaving regular customers in the lurch.

On a recent afternoon, Naidi Carrazana pushed a shopping cart loaded with cases of beer, bottled water and soft drinks she needs to stock her small cafeteria nearby. She acknowledged that business owners like her who make big purchases have been emptying market shelves of things like flour, chicken and tomato paste, and said the new store can help with that.

"A place like this allows you to buy in bulk, and that's a benefit for us and a benefit for the people," Carrazana said.

Located in the upscale western suburb of Miramar, Zona + launched a little over a week ago with zero fanfare. Manager Javier Munoz said shoppers are allowed to buy unlimited quantities, but he declined to comment further because he was not authorised to do so by the store's state-run parent company.

Employees said business has been good despite the lack of publicity, as word of the opening spread mouth-to-mouth. One customer showed up in a car and bought 50 3-kilogram (6.6-pound) cans of tomatoes to supply a restaurant.

SIMILAR STORES PLANNED

Similar stores are being planned for other parts of the city, they added.

In Cuba, government entities are the only ones able to import and acquire goods at wholesale, and wholesale access has been a crucial demand of the 500,000 or so small-business owners and their employees, many of them working in the food-service sector.

The government has promised to set up wholesale markets for private entrepreneurs, but that has yet to materialise and their only option has been the same retail stores where the general population shops.

Although goods at Zona + are bulk, that doesn't entail a price break. For example, a kilogram of high-end Serrano coffee costs US$14.45 there, while the same kilo was US$14.40 on the same day at a regular store elsewhere in Havana.

- AP