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Business

A Supermarket for the Poor

Shopping at a normal grocery store can sometimes push welfare recipients in Germany to their financial limits. But a new grocery store in Düsseldorf seeks to ease the problem.

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This store can even beat Aldi's prices.

At about 100 square meters in size, the small grocery store in Düsseldorf's Flingern neighborhood could be just like any other corner mom and pop shop. The shelves lining the bright yellow walls are filled with cans, coffee and shampoo, just like a normal grocery store. The only difference is that the goods on sale here cost 75 percent less than they do at other shops. They're all donations or gifts from local wholesalers and retailers. Some of the goods are near their expiration date and others are in damaged packaging.

The other difference is that you can't shop here unless you can prove you're on welfare. Each shopper at the store is given a special customer card that can be used only during the duration of time a person is still eligible for government welfare benefits.

There are a number of places where the needy can get food in Germany. But the local organization Flinger Mobil decided from the very start to open a grocery store so that poor people, too, could have the feeling that they were shopping just like everyone else. "Even though they're only paying 25 percent of the normal prices, they should be treated like regular customers," the organization's chairman, Carsten Horn, said.

So far demand has been large and the range of goods simple. During the first few hours after the store opened on May 4, around 30 customers dropped by. "Some things are already sold out," said Horn. "But we're going to take great care to line up the appropriate donors, even if that won't be made easier in times of economic weakness."

Horn is optimistic: "Now, in the starting phase, we're going to have to make some purchases on our own in order to keep the store fully stocked. But in the longer term, we think we'll have enough donors to get through."

Keeping stocked

The idea of a "social" supermarket isn't new. Since the 1990s, the Catholic charity Caritas has operated between 20 and 30 similar projects across Germany, and they have helped many a welfare recipient. But even their longer established stores have had trouble keeping their shelves fully stocked. "Obviously these stores can't order products like normal stores, but we do have a well-developed network of donors," said Caritas spokesman Thomas Brock.

Nor can the Düsseldorf store guarantee that it can supply everyone with everything at anytime. Still, the money people save shopping at the Flingern supermarket can be put towards buying the missing items at a normal store. "When a customer comes to us and saves on basic groceries like flour and sugar, maybe they'll have enough left over to buy bananas at the nearby grocery store," Horn said.

A community center

The organizers of Flinger Mobil see their supermarket as far more than a charity organization. They also see it as a meeting place for people who are often isolated or made to feel lonely by their poverty. To that end, they've set up a small cafe with complimentary coffee.

The store's employees contribute to that atmosphere. At any given time there are three volunteers working. Horn was astounded by the resonance he encountered while looking for people willing to work at the store without pay. "We had 25 people contact us spontaneously," he said. Volunteers at the store are constantly chatting with customers and providing them with advice.

That kind of extra assistance is an extremely important aspect of their work. Horn said that in their work with people in the area's lower economic strata, that advice is crucial. "We have to assume that not every customer here knows how to handle fresh groceries," he explained. "Experience has shown us that many families don't even know, for example, how to turn a head of lettuce into a bowl of salad."

The store is currently being operated in a building that belongs to a local church, which has waved any rental fees for the first year-and-a-half of business. After that, Flingern Mobil will have to pay rent. But with the growing daily demand for the store, that shouldn't be a problem.

"We certainly have no lack of people who are needy," he said.