Thursday, May 28, 2020
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Rupert Roberts must evolve

Dear Editor,

King Canute was simultaneously ruler of England, Denmark and Norway from 1016 to 1035. He became famous, rightly or wrongly, as the ruler who stood on the sea-shore and tried but failed to hold back the tide.

Rupert Roberts is a successful Bahamian grocer who had his own King Canute moment recently. Sadly, he damaged his reputation in what will be a failed attempt to stop the tide of globalism reaching our shores.

Roberts is a likeable curmudgeon whose legacy and loyalty to his country is beyond reproach. His supermarkets are a testament to Bahamianization, be it in the boardroom, the stockroom, the cashier’s pit or the scrum of young people eager to pack grocery bags and assist shoppers to their cars.

But the years have revealed him to be an obdurate old man, fearful of change and now resentful of competition. In other words, he is comfortable being a near-monopolistic oligarch and chief lord of the supermarket business.

His Super Value stores gobbled up the City Market chain when the latter ended their epic battle for supermarket supremacy. Since then a host of Bahamian grocers have entered the marketplace.

Roberts didn’t much like VAT (value-added tax), he isn’t a fan of the amorous goings-on in the stockrooms of his stores that result in maternity claims that impact his employee insurance rates and he certainly has a bone to pick with the web shop operators who he claimed are eating into his supermarkets’ profit margins.

What he does have in common with the web shops is that they both cater to the poor and the vulnerable. Roberts because they have to eat, and the web shops because they still harbor dreams of changing their circumstances by sheer luck.

Roberts likes to wrap himself in the flag by saying his campaign is about saving the nation more than it is about protecting his market share.

Get rid of VAT and the web shops, his thinking goes, and people will have more cash left over after their weekly grocery shopping to spend on school fees, light bills and the like.

Roberts pulled the scab off his old wounds recently by announcing that he had set his cap against The Bahamas joining the World Trade Organization (WTO) and no amount of academic fact or common sense would get him to change his mind.

Leave well enough alone, he says to the treasury. Start flirting with the WTO and pretty soon we will be overrun with foreign workers and, lo and behold, pesky foreign investors who might want to open a food store to compete with his empire.

It probably came as news to our WTO negotiators that free movement of labor is a part of the agenda. What is on the table is the drastic reduction of customs duty, a process the government has already started.

This is supposed to lead to a lowering of costs in the shops but because it came with the introduction of VAT, some merchants (not accusing Roberts of this) have not been passing on these savings to shoppers.

If a 35 percent customs duty is reduced to 10 percent and is accompanied by a 12 percent VAT then the total tax burden becomes 22 percent, which is still a whopping 13 percent savings for the consumer.

Roberts seems to have an unhealthy fear of foreign competition. But he has proven himself a worthy competitor to foreigners. In 1967 the Winn-Dixie chain out of Florida bought into City Markets. In Freeport they even traded under their own name, Winn-Dixie. W-D Bahamas Limited operated until 2006 when it was purchased by a Bahamian family better known for selling liquor than grocery.

The head of the team negotiating our accession to the WTO offered Roberts assurances that the grocery business would remain in Bahamian hands but that was apparently of little comfort to the old merchant.

Roberts should be more interested in modernizing his stores, and if that means partnering with a foreign supermarket chain to drive down his costs then so much the better for consumers.

Besides, the last time a Bahamian grocer had a U.S. partner we got a side benefit called the City Market/Bahamas Supermarkets Scholarship program which educated many Bahamian college students.

In the U.S., large grocery chains such as Kroger and Publix are having to contend with the encroachment by behemoths like Walmart and Amazon onto their turf.

Despite our proximity to Florida we are still light years behind in making food shopping a pleasure and it’s no coincidence that some merchants hide behind the smoke screen of customs duties and VAT as reasons why they still charge high prices.

A cursory check with the Customs Department shows so many of what the supermarkets stock as being both free of duty and free of VAT that it is mind-boggling to understand why prices keep going up while the store owners keep crying poor mouth.

Rice, sardines, flour, bread, cereals, deli meats, grits, juices, pasta and tuna are among a long list of items that can be imported duty free and are zero rated for VAT purposes. Yet they continue to sell here at prices that are often more than three times the Miami retail price.

If Roberts really wanted to win hearts and minds, he should concentrate less on bashing the WTO and more on lobbying the government to put even more of life’s necessities on the duty free/VAT free list. And instead of being an old fuddy-duddy, he should learn to accept globalism as a force for the betterment of all our lives.

A little change can be good, King Rupert.

– The Graduate

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