Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Commissary Shopping in Saudi Arabia


Alright, so occasionally Foreign Service posts also enjoy access to military commissaries. There just happens to be one in Riyadh, and it's...well, we'll come back to that.
One of the best things about commissary shopping (like we used to do when we were stationed in Germany) is getting the familiar American products at reasonable prices. You can usually find a list of items that the local commissary carries at post, so you just go down the list checking off things like a sushi menu. Imported American goods are often twice as expensive on the local market, if you can even get them in the country. So, we send in our shopping list each week, and someone in Riyadh tries to fill the order in time to make the truck back to Jeddah.

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That word "tries" is key here. The commissary in Riyadh gets their supply shipped in monthly from Germany, so you can usually expect nearly (if not already expired) items in the weekly shipment you receive if it isn't right after the monthly delivery. That's if the item is in stock. We've been trying to get the Tostitos chips for weeks now, and the order slip keeps coming back "NIS": Not In Stock.

While there is an option to say "No substitutes" or "Substitutes Acceptable," sometimes you get things that aren't really what you want. Case in point: Lactaid brand lactose-free milk replaced with Lactaid drops. Oh, won't those go well in the lactose-free cookies? And, while I know I'm fortunate enough to be able to buy almond milk through the commissary, it has on occasion arrived completely frozen (which is not recommended). Which kind of defeats the whole point of ordering it in the first place. But the mental image of a truck carrying frozen almond milk across the Saudi desert is just as ironic, don't ya think?
Wait a minute, where's the road?

I will say though that you will become VERY familiar with the UPC codes of your favorite products. This is because the commissary list only has so many characters for the description field and they are often abbreviated. Let's use Kitty Litter as an example. Here's that portion of the stocking list, I've added the HTML links to prove a point:

TIDY CATLITTER CAT LOC07023011720
TIDY CATCAT LTR TDY 20 LB07023010720
FRESH STEPCAT LITR SCOOP ODOR04460030441
TIDY CATLITTER CAT LLOC07023010710
ARM N HAMMERLITTER CAT DEODORIZER03320015020

The descriptions all look pretty much the same right? But some are odor-control (OC), long lasting odor control (LLOC), non-clumping, or unscented...and that Arm & Hammer one isn't even kitty litter, it's a deodorizing powder. You'd be sorely disappointed if you were expecting kitty litter got that powder. Which is why I've included links to AmazonUPC IndexGroceries Express, and Peapod because those are the sites that usually have product images when I google the brand name and UPC (tip: sometimes you need to drop the first zero).

After a few iterations of submitting the order form, we've refined our regular weekly order so that we're pretty sure what we're getting (if it's in stock). But we don't know exactly how much something is going to cost before hand because we don't get those prices on the stocking list, only on the receipt after the fact. We could always call or email our inquiries to the Commissary manager, but where's the fun in that?

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As for other food stuffs and cleaning supplies that we can't get directly from the commissary, we also use Amazon Prime Pantry through the APO/DPO system. And while you can get Doritos, be aware that these boxes get beat to hell during shipping and aren't always packed all that well. Our first order included two bags of flour. Only one of them survived the trip.
I bet the Post Office enjoyed getting a box leaking white powder.
Well, I need to go work on my commissary list now. With luck, it will be in stock and not expired. But that usually only happens for the stuff nobody else wants. But it's better than not having the option.

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