Photo Courtesy of Malak Abdel-Ghaffar

Is Blue Mart Overpriced? A Comparative Look at Prices across the UAE

In this piece, data sampling and interactive visualization of prices from Carrefour and Lulu are used to understand whether Blue Mart is overcharging on campus and how it impacts NYU Abu Dhabi students.

Oct 11, 2020

A purchase at the NYU Abu Dhabi Convenience Store is like paying for a taxi in certain countries — you know you have been overcharged, but you hand over the cash anyway with little more than a shrug. I too am guilty of tossing my convenience store receipt without so much as a glance, but I have become more mindful of my purchasing power since Sushi Counter altered its student discount in Fall 2019. Sushi Counter’s new policy launched a discussion about the value of campus dirhams and whether they were real money. As a partial aid student, I certainly felt the difference in value when my 24 dirham sushi burrito became 37 Campus Dirhams. Because I do not receive a stipend, I rely on Campus Dirhams to cover my living expenses including toiletries and household goods. When these items cost more, I am able to buy less with my Campus Dirhams and rely on my personal savings to cover the difference. The total cost of my NYUAD education increases without any added value.
This past summer, the NYUAD administration announced changes to the stipend disbursement, through which students received a minimum of 25 percent of their stipends as Falcon Dirhams, a new type of Campus Dirham. In creating this plan and asserting there was no change in monetary value, the admin assumed a one-to-one equivalency ratio between Falcon Dirhams and the UAE dirhams received in previous stipends. But do Falcon Dirhams, restricted only to certain vendors, really have equivalent purchasing power in the NYUAD Convenience Store?
Over the summer, Grace Bechdol, Class of 2023, created a spreadsheet comparing product prices at NYUAD Blue Mart and Lulu, using prices listed on the Blue Mart delivery order form and Lulu’s website.
“I wanted to highlight the disparity in price because students would be losing out on a lot by paying for things in Campus Dirhams,” explained Bechdol. Using this data as a foundation, I explore NYUAD Blue Mart prices in comparison with leading grocery brands LuLu and Carrefour for 82 products.
How do NYUAD Blue Mart prices compare to those of LuLu and Carrefour?
In this chart, one can broadly see that NYUAD Blue Mart prices are generally higher. Given NYUAD students’ increased reliance on campus vendors with the changes to stipend disbursement and the introduction of Falcon Dirhams, there is less incentive for NYUAD Blue Mart to offer competitive prices.
Suzan Sadek, Class of 2022, used to buy groceries off campus because of the greater variety and cheaper prices.
“Since 25 percent of my stipend is now going to Falcon Dirhams, I feel like I have to use the money so, recently, I do all my grocery shopping in the convenience store despite them not having certain things I need,” she explained.
Similar to when the Sushi Counter policy change was revealed, as students and consumers, we are once again cornered when deciding where to spend.
How much more expensive or cheaper are NYUAD Blue Mart products? Since it is difficult to make overall conclusions across categories using the dot chart, let’s zoom in a bit. Are there certain products where NYUAD Blue Mart prices are much higher than others? Are there products where the prices are actually cheaper?
To explore these questions, I calculated the percent difference for each product with data available for both NYUAD and Carrefour. In this stacked histogram, you can see the distribution of the products’ percent differences between NYUAD Blue Mart and Carrefour.
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Many of the products in the sample fall into the 20 to 50 percent difference range, but two products in the 60 to 80 percent difference range that you should probably stay away from include Indomie Fried Mi Goreng Cup Noodles and Nature Valley Salted Caramel Nut Protein bars, both costing over double the respective prices found at Carrefour.
As a student on partial aid, I felt powerless seeing the price disparities in this data. Because the NYUAD tuition and housing package is primarily designed for students on full financial support, the package lacks the flexibility that other universities have; I am forced to pay for a meal plan that has created a hole in my pocket with dirhams falling out.
How do NYUAD Blue Mart prices compare to other Blue Mart locations? Is Blue Mart just a more expensive grocery store than LuLu and Carrefour? Using their Dubai e-commerce app, I visualized 35 products’ prices using a connected dot plot to understand, at a big picture level, whether there were any differences in the prices between the Blue Mart on campus and other Blue Mart locations.
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Though it is difficult to understand the difference relative to the price of each product, this visualization shows there are clear disparities in pricing between the Blue Mart on campus and other Blue Mart locations. I reached out to the NYUAD Blue Mart team to understand the factors that go into their pricing but they directed me to the ADNH Compass team instead. ADNH Compass subsequently informed me that they were not willing to speak to any publications.
Adam Kice, Manager of Campus Services, Dining and Housing for NYUAD, explained that Blue Mart had been selected as a campus vendor before he worked at NYUAD.
“[The selection team] looked at the ability to provide the needed service for the size and location of the store on campus, while ensuring that the vendor could offer a broad range of products to meet the needs of our community,” said Kice. He added that he was unaware of the different pricing structure between NYUAD Blue Mart and other Blue Mart locations, but that he is working with the Student Government Dining Committee to begin a transparent price analysis with Blue Mart. Seo-Hee Hong, Class of 2023 and Dining Committee Chair, confirmed that they are actively working on the pricing issues and that they are a priority for the committee.
How do NYUAD Blue Mart prices affect us?
In this example, ten products were randomly selected from the original sample of 82 products. If you purchased these 10 products every week, you would lose 365 dirhams over a semester. Imagine how that loss scales when you consider all the products available from the NYUAD Convenience Store and the number of students making these purchases.
As a student body, we need to become more aware of our purchasing power with Campus and Falcon Dirhams, especially because this now affects all of us on campus whether we are on partial aid or not.
“In the long run, if we remain complacent, the value of campus dirhams will decrease as the campus dirhams products prices will be much higher than the actual market price”, stated Omar Ould Ali, Class of 2022 and former Dining Committee Chair, in the aftermath of the Sushi Counter policy change. “Please remember that your consumer behavior right now is going to affect the purchasing ability of those who come after you.”
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