Everyday life in an extraordinary place.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Let's Go Shopping

This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 29 April 2001

In spite of all that has happened in Israel over the past several months, life does go on. Grownups go to work, kids go to school, and we all still need to eat. But even something as seemingly frivolous as shopping has a different flavor here.

In Israel, a security guard inspects your bag before you enter the supermarket or store, not when you leave. Here, people are more concerned about what you might be bringing into the store, than what you might illicitly take out. At most malls, there is also a guard stationed at the entrance to the parking lot. He stops each car so he can look inside through the window, and asks the driver several questions. If he becomes suspicious, he will ask you to get out and open the trunk of the car so he can look in there, too.

Giant supermarkets and fancy shopping malls, such as the one pictured above, are fairly recent additions to the Israeli retail scene. Stores downtown are usually small, narrow rooms with shelves filled to the ceiling, and display stands cluttering the sidewalks. Years ago, people did their grocery shopping at a small, neighborhood "mom and pop" market, called a "makolet." Obviously there wasn't much of a selection there, since the store was often smaller than a typical gas station convenience store. My husband can recall the time when only the wealthier neighborhoods had such items as sour cream in their local stores. Fresh fruit and vegetables were purchased at the "shuk," or open air market. All cities and towns still have them. If the word sounds familiar, it may be because so many terrorist attacks are carried out (or attempted) at the shuks. Large numbers of people gather at the shuk, particularly on Fridays, to shop for the Sabbath.

Now we have strip malls and shopping centers, enormous supermarkets and discount stores. A visitor to Israel will see many familiar company names. We have Toys "R" Us, Office Depot, ACE Hardware, Blockbuster Videos and Tower Records, to name a few. The popular furniture chain IKEA just opened a store here this month. Being the Californian that I am, I prefer to shop in a mall, where there is ample parking close at hand. Besides, these days it is literally dangerous to shop downtown, as it is such a popular target for terrorist attacks.

It is not just the size of the stores and the merchandise they carry that has changed. Many people who work in retail, especially those who work for American companies, are learning a whole new standard of service. Here is an example of the old style of Israeli service: when I ordered my wedding invitations in 1989 in Jerusalem, I went to a small printer. After the invitations were ready, I went to pick them up and saw that they had been printed askew. When I pointed this out to the man behind the counter, his reaction was something to the effect that I was too picky and no one else would notice. In those days, this was a fairly common reaction: the customer is always wrong, and if he doesn't like something, that's his problem.

In 1998, the European edition of TIME magazine carried an article on this very subject, called "Civilizing Israel." In it, writer Lisa Beyer reported that such "boorishness is in part a legacy of Israel's miserly past." She goes on to explain that in the early days of statehood, the country suffered from shortages. This in turn created a situation where the merchant had the upper hand over the consumer. "(S)ellers grew arrogant and uncaring...buyers were grateful for whatever they got." This attitude prevailed for many years, long past the time the situation may have warranted it.

Further, with the appearance of European and American stores in Israel, local businesses face stiffer competition. If a customer doesn't like the way she is treated, she can simply take her business elsewhere. The upper hand has shifted to the consumer.

Also, these days Israelis are world travelers who have been to America and Europe and seen what real service is. They come home from their trips abroad and begin to demand better service here, as well. The combination of expectations from both the management of foreign-owned businesses and the consumer have led to increasing congeniality in the Israeli retail sector. Now, you can even return an item to the store, as long as you have a receipt (something that was unheard of even five years ago).

The following vignette, from the article mentioned above, truly captures the spirit of Israeli service today, in my opinion:

"A customer at the Princess Hotel in Eilat* is pleasantly surprised by the friendly and prompt service he receives in the cocktail lounge. 'The staff are so nice here,' the customer tells the waitress. 'Yeah,' she deadpans. 'They make us.'"

* A popular resort town at the southernmost tip of the country.

(c) Amy Samin

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