Thursday, September 3, 2009

Israel's Retail Culture תרבות הקניות

Whenever anyone asks me if there’s anything I miss about the States, I don’t even hestitate to reply: The retail culture. Notice I did not say “consumer culture”, which I abhor, and which I define as the drive to buy, buy, buy regardless of the effect on our planet or the humans thereon. What I mean by retail culture is the fact that in the States, the shopper is treated like the very royalty whose eschewance the Land of the Free is founded upon, whether shopping at Family Dollar or at Nordstroms -- true equality.

I grew up in the epitome of Shopping Land -- the Midwest ‘burbs -- where every component of The Shopping Experience, from the spaces-as-far-as-the-eye-can-see free parking to the Have-A-Nice-Day! Return and Exchange Policy are geared toward Getting You Inside The Store, Enticing You To Stay As Long As Possible, and Getting You To Come Back. Makes sense to me that if you’re selling something, you want to makes things as painless, simple, easy, and convenient for your customers as possible. Why, then, are Israeli retailers still stuck in Soviet-style Supply-Side-Rules-And-The-Customer-Can-Blow-Me mode?

I get that not everything is under the retailer’s control: Space in Israel is at a premium, so we’re stuck with cramped parking, narrow aisles, and telephone booth-sized fitting rooms. But everything else is doable, including:

1. Atmosphere - When I enter your store, I want to hear Muzak. That’s right, Muzak, or at the very least, I don’t want to feel trance music pulsing through my being, played at so loud a volume that I can’t hear myself think.

2. Cleanliness - I usually have to use the bathroom at some point during shopping. I was recently in an H&O whose bathroom wasn’t fit for a junkie to shoot up in. I went to see the manager and asked him if he would let his own daughter use the bathroom there. He said he’d “check it out”. Right. HaMashbir is slightly better: They supply toilet paper and occasionally a squeeze bottle of all-purpose soap, complete with drippings down the sides, to wash your hands with. Towels or dryers? You’ve gotta be kidding -- who dya think you are? The Jordanian royal family? You must have us confused with a business that wants its customers to stay as long as possible and buy stuff.

3. Fitting rooms - Have Enough Of Them. No one should have to wait to try on clothing. And while they may be small, there’s no reason they can’t contain: 1) An ottoman to place your belongings on; 2) Hooks to hang clothing on; and 3) A full-length mirror. You retailers who put the mirrors on the outside of the doors? So transparent. You think we’re stupid? We know you just want to force us out of the fitting room so you can talk us into buying whatever we’re trying on. Recently at Fox, my daughter was trying on a cute gray shirt emblazoned with “The One & Only” (one of the less offensive messages on Israeli clothing). She was checking out her reflection in the extra-fitting room mirror and said to me, “I’ll take it” ― ding-ding-ding, that’s called a sale ― when a sales clerk said to her, “You’re fair-skinned. You need another color, like pink.” Predictably, the same shirt in the pink version was emblazoned with “Never Dance Alone”. My daughter was flustered. I ignored Sales Clerk and told her, “Honey, the gray looks good on you, and the message on the pink one is cheap”. The sales clerk continued to argue. I turned to her and said, “She wants the gray one”, thinking, What is the matter with you, Lady? She likes the item; she wants to purchase it. Hands off!

OK, we’ve decided on our purchases. Now let’s move on to the ordeal known as…

4. Checkout - I have never seen all three (or at most four) registers staffed at an Israeli store. Never. Yesterday I was at Mega ba’Ir at 17:30, peak shopping time, and as I approached the checkout, the cashier informed me she was closing her register -- at peak time, mind you. I had three items. The “Express Lane” line reached all the way to Taba. I opted to stay in a regular lane. We moved forward at a snail's pace and waited 'til the customer before me argued with the cashier about the price, then had to rummage around for her vouchers, then couldn't find enough cash...just the way I wanted to spend my afternoon.

At haMashbir recently, only one of two registers was open. I dutifully got into the line, which reached all the way to Nuweiba. I stopped every sales clerk that passed me and asked to have the other register opened. Most looked at me like I’d dropped in from Mars. One actually had the gall to reply, “Why? The line’s not that long”. In contrast, when I worked as a KMart cashier in high school, as soon as a supervisor noticed shoppers having to wait in line behind more than two other shoppers, it was: “Miriam, open Register 16, and hustle”. Why do Israeli retailers hire just less than enough staff? And why can they not train all employees to operate a register? Is it that complicated?

5. Flawed merchandise - In the States, cashiers have the Authority Vested In Them to give a standard discount on flawed merchandise, usually 10%. Here in Israel? Forget it. First of all, no personnel has any authority to make any decision whatsoever beyond how she’ll have her nails sculpted. So I’ve learned to just skip over the lowlings and ask to speak to the Shift Manager. Recently a Shift Manager at H&O grudgingly gave me 5% off a tank top with a stain in front, warning me, “Realize that this is it. No returns or exhanges. It’s yours.” Oooooh. Real scary. I wanted to say to her, “Honey, I’m doing you a favor. No one else’ll buy this, and you’d be forced to let it go for way less than 5% at the end of the season, when you’ll be stuck with it. Instead I’m taking it off your hands now.”

6. Returns - I like to say that you can walk up to Customer Service at KMart with a pair of sneakers you bought in 1965 and return them, explaining, “My boyfriend doesn’t like the color on me”. It’s an exaggeration, but not much of one. At Target, I recently returned a pair of earrings that I’d already worn, explaining that they were heavy and made my earlobes sore. Within five seconds I had my money back ― cash ― with a smile. You can bet I’ll be back at Target ― again and again and again. In contrast, I bought a futon frame at Futon ba’Ir that broke after ten days. The store had the chutzpa to offer me store credit, as if a futon is a staple you buy every day, like a pair of socks. At Mixer, when I wanted to return a fridge magnet whose magnet had fallen out on my way home, the sculpted-nail teen running the register told me, “My supplier won’t take it back.” And this is my problem? We’re talking a ₪5 doodad, for God’s sake.

Now I’ll tell you about my two most recent restaurant complaints. After eating at Passador in Eilat, I wrote the management a letter containing several complaints, including loud music inappropriate to an eating establishment; a giant-screen TV on the Fashion Channel, forcing me to stare at cleavages as I dined; chincy portions; and unimaginative presentation (no garnishes, etc.). The very nice manager called me and assured me that all had been rectified and invited me back so he could prove it. But. Didn’t. Offer. A freebie. No free dessert, not even a free beverage, much less a free entrée or complete meal. Sorry, not gambling in that establishment again.

At Aroma recently I ordered a Health Sandwich, whose ingredients can only be described with the British “sodden”. And it contained, of all things, sliced zuchinni. I wrote to the chain that 1) The sandwich wasn’t fresh and 2) The reason I didn’t know I’d be getting zuchinni [why not avocado?] was because the menu’s writing was so tiny that I was too impatient to read the entire ingredient list. I got a letter back from someone named Reuven telling me 1) I should’ve told the [sculpted-nail teenage] staff and 2) Describing to me in detail Aroma’s quality assurance practices.

I wrote back saying that he hadn’t addressed my complaints. Particularly, the staff has no control over the menu, nor could they change it on the spot. I got another letter informing me that the Eilat Big Aroma branch would be thoroughly investigated. Then I got a call from Avner, the manager, with the same rigamarole I got from Reuven, inviting me to come in and “discuss it over coffee”.

Avner and Reuven, wherever you are, I don’t need your lengthy explanations and invitations to coffee. Send me a voucher for a free cup of coffee, or a ₪25 gift card…anything, but give me something to compensate me besides verbose letters and phone calls that take up my time. Show me some good faith; demonstrate to me that you’re interested in my future business! I’m not interested in meeting you, I don’t want your company; I just want a reasonable product in exchange for my money!

Then there are the institutions and businesses that don't even bother replying: Ben-Gurion Airport, when I wrote in to its Feedback telling them that they should redo their signs to make them more comprehensible to the public, i.e, referring to Terminal 1 as "International Terminal" and Terminal 2 as "Domestic Terminal"; and the ones like the City of Jerusalem, who wrote back to tell me that there's no reason to label the bus station as such, thank you. They apparently think it's superfluous to label the building. Yet it's important that Clal Center bear prominent ads on its facade for a retail establishment that sells sex toys, in the middle of the city holy to three faiths. And to think there's a commentor out there who thinks I do this for recreation...

Israelis do a tremendous amount of marketing research; I know this first-hand, because I edit reams of it. When, oh when, is any of its findings going to be applied down here on the ground? When am I, the ordinary consumer, going to see the results???


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Very, very good one, Yam!

  3. You protest too much -- so much that it sounds like you get pleasure from needling stores and clerks. These annoyances are not so important.

  4. Irv, re "These annoyances aren't important". You raised your family in the States. Try taking a preteen girl shopping for clothes in a store with filthy facilities that they dare to call bathrooms, and then standing in line for 20 minutes to purchase a single item while one airhead teenager checks out two customers. Multiply that experience by five, several times a year; and that's just clothing for one dependent. Add to that families who have to fill all their needs in this tedious grind: groceries, office supplies, you name it. And the supermarkets here bear little if any resemblance to the Giant, where you're used to shopping. Think glorified corner grocery, yet under-capacity for clientele space- and personnel-wise. We consumers, who are spending our hard-earned money, deserve better.

  5. Love this one Yam! Your images are great and you keep the laughs coming. Too bad it's all TRUE! Gabriella Tal

  6. I agree with all you write. I have experienced all the rude; ignorant retail folks you depict. What baffles me is why anyone puts up with this rot? Why don't people WALK OUT? Why not go elsewhere? Yes, elsewhere is not so sweet either yet walking is bad for business. Economic boycotts do work.

  7. Re Aroma, remember Kapulski in Eilat? I took my parents there. My father, who loves ice cream coupes, order the "ice cream special", ice cream topped with fresh fruits. Sounds great, no? The ice cream is brought by some young student waitress, only, there is no ice cream with the fresh fruit...when questioned about the lack of ice cream in the "special ice cream" she answers, you ready?, "well that is what is special about it", I still love it, she deserved a tip, just for letting me still laugh about her line, years later
    Sahar Lotte Ben Gal

  8. Lotte, not only do I remember Kapulsky, but once I asked them to substitute cottage cheese for ice cream, and they refused. I wrote the chain and they gave me a free dessert. But "Ice Cream Special" -- that beats 'em hands down!