Wednesday 10 August 2022

As prices keep going up, will our lifestyles eventually come crashing down?

This column first appeared in Malta Today

Lately, every conversation seems to inevitably turn to how expensive everything has become. The cost of living has been escalating for some time for a variety of reasons, ranging from Brexit to Covid and the Ukraine war which have all caused the cost of freight and food supplies to skyrocket. There have been rumblings for months that the accumulative domino effect was going to hit us eventually, but people seemed to be on an uninhibited roll, living their lives and spending in blind oblivion. Now, however, many are really starting to feel the pinch and almost belatedly realising that they have to cut back.

With salaries remaining the same (and being on the low end of the scale across the board in almost very sector when compared to other countries) – there is only so much you can stretch your pay cheque. In fact, for the first time, I am hearing people say that they have simply stopped dining out because restaurant prices have become exorbitant, preferring to save their money and travel instead.

Now for Malta this is a big deal, because going out to eat is considered one of our favourite ways of socialising. We love getting dressed up (or dressing casually down) and meeting up with friends and family over a meal. The way things are going, however, the eye-watering prices are forcing many to stay home and organise a rooftop BBQ instead. It is only those eateries which are tucked away in less commercial areas, where the rent is not so steep, which might be managing to keep their prices as they were a few years ago. There is also the suspicion (which may or may not be well-founded) that restauranteurs are using the above-mentioned factors as an excuse to raise their prices unnecessarily, thus taking advantage of the situation. Many have ended up in a vicious cycle: a drop in customers means they are not covering their costs so they raise prices to break even, losing even more customers in the process. Whatever the reason may be, people are voting with their feet, and taking their business and hard-earned Euros, elsewhere.

Shopping for groceries has also served as a cold shower for many. I once got home after spending €40, looked at what I had bought spread out on my kitchen table and realised that there was really nothing which could make a meal. They were just random items I had run out of. Probably for the first time in my life I sat down and started comparing prices online between the various supermarkets to see which one gave the most value for money. I used to think that saving a few cents here and there was not worth driving around for bargains because you end up spending more on petrol, but the shock of those €40 spent on a few items could not be ignored. These days with online shopping being offered by most major supermarkets (one of the few silver linings brought about by Covid), it has become even easier to pick and choose where to shop.

In fact, one software developer, Manolis Chountasis, seemed to have read my mind because he has created a site which compares prices across 10 leading supermarkets in Malta called cheaptrolley.com. What spurred him to do it was an experience similar to mine…he was gazing at his bill and his shopping and suddenly realised how little he had actually bought. What he found is that there isn’t really a single cheap supermarket in Malta – “some products are cheap at one supermarket, while other products are cheap at other supermarkets”. Speaking to Lovin’ Malta he said, “By using our website, users can prepare their shopping list and see how much money they are going to spend; where they can save money and keep on their budget.”

This concept, which is relatively new here, is used abroad all the time, of course. Consumer watchdogs are always comparing prices and giving the public pointers on how to get the best deals. Breakfast shows and daytime programming often feature guests whose job it is to look around for ways to save money and pass this information on to viewers, especially in the current climate when inflation has hit our pockets so deeply. At least we have moved a step forward because supermarkets are now openly posting their prices online, so that a comparison can be made from the comfort of your own home without having to physically drive round in this sweltering heat, with a list and a calculator.

Unfortunately, when it comes to other retail sectors, however, many are still guarding their prices as if they were top secret KGB files. They advertise their products constantly on Facebook but when you ask them how much, the shop owners reply ‘sent you a PM’ as if it is a hush-hush operation which requires a secret code and mysterious hand signals. This really has to stop because it is highly irritating and counter-productive. I’m presuming they persist with this practice because they are afraid their competitors will undercut them if prices are listed openly but really, consumers look for many factors when it comes to buying certain things (especially when forking out a lot of money). The price is important, but so is quality and above all customer service and after sales.

As prices rise, people will do their utmost to search for alternatives. One sector which has suffered greatly on the local market is anything for the home, from furniture to kitchens, with many travelling to neighbouring Sicily and buying everything from there. Who can blame them when they can get what they want for sometimes half the price? I think the surreal experiences we endured with Covid restrictions have also made many people re-think their priorities and shift their way of thinking about what to spend thousands of Euro on. Many couples, for example, are no longer so determined to have a wedding on a grand scale a la Maltaise, but have trimmed down their expenses by having a smaller guest list, and doing away with a lot of what was once considered “must haves”. After all, there are no rule books in life except the ones which society forces upon us – but, as many have realised, the sky won’t come falling down if you do things your way.

Of course, this does not mean that everyone has cut back – there are still indications that some pockets of our social fabric persist in living a lifestyle which is beyond their means. How long can it realistically last though before it all finally catches up with them?

A cacophony of noise

I went into Valletta on Friday night to watch a film, the first time since the new amendment allowing music to be played outdoors until 1am. Even at 9pm however, there were areas where the noise was unbearable. I don’t know about you, but the prospect of a singer one foot away from me, belting out tunes into a microphone as I eat dinner is the opposite of relaxation. One singer was so close to the diners she could practically help herself to a bread roll between songs. This scenario repeated itself throughout Republic street.

As we came out of the cinema at 11.30pm, the cacophony of noise spilling out from nearby bars was ridiculous. My ears were starting to bleed so we headed in the opposite direction until we thankfully found a wine bar with muted music. I regret not recording the noise because I would have sent it to the Prime Minister and ask him for his reaction. Alternatively someone should go underneath his bedroom window, carrying a boom box, like John Cusack in “Say Anything”. But rather than a romantic serenade, I would turn up the volume on the loudest music I could think of and let it play for five hours straight…just so that he can get a taste of what Valletta residents are being forced to endure.

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