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Thursday, February 05, 2009

Right on Topic: Patronizing Frum Businesses

This week's Yated has a letter from a wife who would like to support Orthodox owned businesses, but is tired of the business practices. As much as people yell and scream about our halachic obligation to patronize Jewish owned businesses, even if it costs a bit more (and all too often, the price differential will quickly relieve the consumer of any such obligation), I still maintain that these businesses need to become more competitive and diversify their clientele. As families find their budget increasingly squeezed, if you don't run a competitive business, you will see less business.

Dear Editor,

There was talk a while ago in the Readers Write column of purchasing products mainly in heimishe owned businesses and the like. I tried to commit myself to doing this, yet I was a bit troubled by a phenomenon that kept recurring in some (maybe even many) heimishe supermarkets or stores. This includes some of the upstate supermarkets as well.

Where are the prices? Where are the signs displaying that one product is cheaper than the next or individual price tags on the packages?

How can a mother or anyone go shopping if she cannot compare one product to the next in terms of price?

Some stores say, “We have an in-store scanner,” or, “Ask the cashier.” So every time I want to compare the price of a product I have to run to the scanner or cashier?! Who has the time for that?

I walked into a food store recently and began shopping, but I couldn’t decide what to buy - because there were no prices shown! I was approached by the owner who asked me, “Can I help you? What are you looking for?” I answered, “I am looking for prices.” The storeowner looked at me and didn’t know what to say. I just left and shopped elsewhere.

I am a cash-paying customer, and there are many like me who would like to continue patronizing Jewish groceries and stores. However, if this keeps up, we will have to patronize the stores (heimish or otherwise) that have prices on or near their products in order to save money in these trying times.

Name Withheld

Business owners who are looking to improve their lot need to study the market they are in. Besides the suggestion above about clearly marking prices, here are a few more:
  • Improve customer service. Here is a personal example: I recently called a certain out of the way kosher grocery that carries a product that is very competitively priced to find out if it was in the refrigerator case, as I have made the drive before only to find out they are out of stock. The lady answering the phone told me if I wanted to find out, I would need to come in the store. Never mind that her phone is about 20 steps away from where the product sits. I ended up taking my business to a regular grocery store that offers some great coupons for large orders which brings me to just about the same price on this product and while I'm there I can get everything else, as well as use my (double) coupons.
  • Put your advertisements up on your website or on a community list serve before your sale starts. You may have specials, but if I don't find out about it until your sale is finished, I'm not going to shop in your store. I make a list for the week and decide where I am going. You need to draw me into your store by letting me know what you are offering. I don't have time or patience to drop in your store to find out what you have on special.
  • And, I'm still waiting for the drive-by window. I don't care to bring my kids into cramped kosher markets. Shopping in the regular market is a pleasure with the wide aisles and fireman carts that hold the attention of my kids. Walking into most kosher stores makes my blood pressure rise.


Jewboy said...

I can totally relate to the blood pressure rising. I usually relieve my wife of the burden of going shopping, and the kosher mart in my town is enough to make me close to a nervous breakdown.

It's a sad commentary, but I don't like dealing with frum people in any business context anymore. Gotten burned too many times.

Anonymous said...

Many people who shop in "heimishe" supermarkets are not price-conscious because they aren't paying for the groceries. When someone I know asked a proprietor in Williamsburg why his prices are so high he said, "They pay with food stamps so nobody cares anyway."

Ezzie said...


When I first got laid off a few months ago, I talked with someone about starting a site to compare prices in Jewish stores, just as a service to consumers, and that the stores would gain by showing where they have deals, etc. Their stuff all scans (and I will say that in KGH, it's almost always tagged, and sometimes there's a scanner to check prices in the aisle), but it's impossible to know which items are reasonable and which are severely overpriced. People quickly noted to me that there was no way any Jewish store would voluntarily supply prices, because most items are very overpriced and if people would compare they'd start consciously shopping for most items elsewhere. They also wouldn't want their competitors to gain any advantage over them.

It's really kind of sad.

rosie said...

As I have said before, in some communities, the local residents are captive buyers because they don't have cars. That is changing from my generation to my childrens' generation, as those of their generation all learn to drive no matter where they live. Many women my age and older shopped on foot and if they had to leave their NY neighborhood it meant shlepping kids on trains, or in car services without car seats for the kids. Cars in NY are expensive to own and troublesome to park but some people feel that the ability to shop in large chain stores as opposed to heimish stores offsets the price and trouble of car ownership. I don't think that small groceries have the ability to charge less because they don't have the buying ability of stores like Walmart.
With regard to clothing, it is not just the price difference, sometimes it is the style difference as well. A person might not find the style or size that they want in a small store, however if they can't leave the neighborhood, they are limited in their selection and will pay more to shop locally. These small stores just can't buy in big enough quantity to sell low and still pay their overhead.
With regard to prescription drugs, there is a big markup and anyone with a computer can see if they are overpaying at a frum-owned pharmacy and should bargain for a lower price.

David said...

As a person who has managed retail shops and restaurants, I am generally appalled at the poor customer service I find typical in many frum institutions. I am often hesitant to bring Gentile coworkers to the restaurants, lest they discover that "kosher" does not mean "clean."

Anonymous said...

Fortunately, where I live in the 5 Towns, competition has forced customer service and pricing to become a competitive differentiator. In the past, due to fewer choices, customer service was non existent and pricing was outrageous. This has been the deciding factor in my shopping in jewish owned stores, not the need to patronize jewish stores.

rosie said...

I would also say, along the lines of what David is saying, that I do not want to buy outdated or unsafe merchandise. My daughter's neighborhood store did not stock BPA free baby bottles (neither the Jewish or the chain drugstores) so we ordered them online. The local Jewish merchant selling cribs did not stock the brand with the safety ratings that we wanted, so we had it shipped from The brand that the Jewish store carries has had recalls due to babies dying when the cribs collapsed. They don't try to sell recalled models but we didn't want that brand at all so we had no choice but to buy elsewhere.
I have found though that the stores often deliver the merchandise in NY which is a plus as far as I am concerned because without a car, grocery shopping is difficult and in a large tenement, parking close enough to bring in the groceries is also difficult.
I live out-of-town and there is no grocery delivery here. It is not a big deal for most people to park in their spacious parking lot and bring the groceries home to their 2 car attached garages but the elderly have trouble shopping there. They wish that there was someone there to help them load the groceries into their carts and then into their cars. Although I don't think that Walmart would provide the elderly with that service, it would be a nice touch if frum stores could do that (or have a day or two a week that the elderly get special attention.)

RaggedyMom said...

The lack of clear pricing in all-kosher groceries is a big pain. There are stores that are better about it than others, but in some stores, it feels like the prices are made up by the checkout personnel as they go along.

I once blogged about an irritating incident where a kosher store tried to deny that an item was on sale although the price was clearly noted on a sale sign.

Beth said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
JLan said...

"I live on the Upper West side of Manhattan and we now have a new dairy restaurant that is very busy and succesful."

If you're talking about Mike's, I absolutely agree. Good food, reasonable prices, and I'd be relatively surprised to see Roma in business a year or two from now. I do, however, eat at Viva, so there's only so much appeal to Mike's.

In fact, I'm perfectly willing to pay a bit more for good service. As an example: on the UWS, there are three kosher grocery stores, one of which is mostly hot food. Of the other two, one is larger, has a lot more "normal" stuff, and is typically a bit cheaper; the other is smaller and typically a bit more expensive. The latter, however, also has high quality stuff, and if they don't have what you need, they'll go out of their way to get it together for you. Since I buy my regular groceries at a regular supermarket and my fruits and veggies at a fruit stand, I'd just as soon go to the smaller one with better customer service, even if they do cost a bit more.

Upper West Side Mom said...

I agree 100% that if frum businesses want to survive they must raise their standards. One of the best examples of this is kosher restaurants. I live on the Upper West side of Manhattan and we now have a new dairy restaurant that is very busy and succesful. The general concensus of the neighborhod was that there was no demand for a dairy restaurant and that is why they always failed. I have always maintained that the reason they fail is because they have awful food and are filthy. The only people who went in were frum Jews because no one else in their right mind would pay too much money for bad food. All of the restaurants in Manhattan that are successful have food that is to the same standard as non kosher food and you will not only see frum Jews in there but all kinds of people.

JS said...

The driving cause of the horrible service and high prices is the out-dated edict of "no competition" which I don't believe should apply any more (or at the very least to the same degree) as it used to given the way the economy works. Furthermore, the "no competition" halacha was NEVER intended to allow Jews to rip off other Jews or mistreat them.

Where I live the vaad has absolutely forbidden more restaurants or kosher marketplaces to open, so we're stuck. The kosher places have absolutely no incentive to treat you well since you are a captive audience. Going anywhere else is a gigantic shlep. So, if you call and they say your food will be ready in 20 minutes, you show up at the appointed time and are then forced to stand and wait another 40 minutes, well too bad. The deli counter is always around the aisle Thursday nights and yet they refuse to hire another person - everyone can just wait for 20 or so minutes. I could go on, but my blood pressure is going up.

Heimish has become synonymous with high prices and lousy service.

Anonymous said...

I live in a frum neighborhood where the local kosher food store has pretty good prices, great selection, and good quality. (Service is so-so, which I guess is excellent for frum stores). The reason I think this store is an exception is there is a lot of competition from non-frum businesses. Not one but two local Shop-Rites cater to the community by carrying a lot of kosher items. There are 2 ethnic fruit markets within a 4 mile drive that have rockbottom prices. So for even basic groceries, this kosher store has to be competitive. If I forget something in Shop-Rite or I need a vegetable in a pinch, I grab it at the kosher store without feeling totally reamed.

Ariella said...

I can't stand the type of store that obscures prices or posts ridiculously inflated price tags on clothes so that they can convince you they are giving you a special discount when they take something like 20% off, which still leaves the price higher than you may find at another store with honest pricing. I am 100% certain that there is no mitzvah in patronizing stores that cheat consumers just because the owners claim to be frum. Being truly frum require them to comply with choshen mishpat and not breaching either gneivas da'as or real gneivas mammon.

rosie said...

I have had occasions to shop at the overpriced frum clothing stores but there is one type of Jewish business that I won't patronize and that is MLM businesses that frum people are pushing on each other. While I have gone to outrageously priced shaitel machers, the last 3 shaitels that I had styled were in the Korean owned beauty supply shop and the Korean lady cutting the shaitel charged $25 per wig. When was the last time that a frum woman charged that?

Anonymous said...

As a person who has managed retail shops and restaurants, I am generally appalled at the poor customer service I find typical in many frum institutions. I am often hesitant to bring Gentile coworkers to the restaurants, lest they discover that "kosher" does not mean "clean."

I go with my coworkers to the local kosher places all the time, but I do warn new folks that kosher places are similar in nature to other "ethnic" restaurants they eat in (often dirty, substandard service, heimish, etc). My coworkers eat every Thursday at a local Jamaican place that is a complete dump and is much worse (cleanliness, service, etc) than any kosher place I've ever seen. But they tell me that the food tastes great.

I even take coworkers to eat at kosher establishments all over the world (Milan, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Frankfurt, Paris, Rome, etc) when we travel together.


ProfK said...

Unlike JS, the lack of competition for our kosher providers hasn't worked to make them think they can get away with anything. Other frum owned stores and restaurants have opened here over the years, but rather than just buy when the prices and service is lousy our community has reacted by not setting foot in the places. These stores went out of business and it was their own fault. The stores that remain know that they have to "be good" to customers if they want to stay in business. There are five major supermarkets within 10 minutes drive max of our community and they all have large kosher departments, including fish and meat. Our frum grocery store owner got smart--he checked out the prices on certain products in the supermarkets and he undercuts their prices and lets you know he does.

The frum establishments, which are generally smaller than the other shopping places available, should take their lesson from the old Avis slogan: We're number 2--we try harder.

ora said...

I have no experience with this -- there were no frum stores where I lived in the states, and in Israel pretty much everywhere is "frum" in the sense of being Jewish-owned and closed on Shabbos, so "buying frum" isn't anything special.

I do wonder, reading these posts, why things are so different in the states. Here the products in hareidi communities are almost always cheaper, because it's known that hareidim tend to have bigger families and less money, so they appreciate a bargain more (also, if things are overpriced, people just won't buy, because they simply can't afford it). (I even saw it black on white recently in a newspaper that compared the prices of a certain group of products in stores in hareidi neighborhoods vs. elsewhere.)

Why is it any different in America? Shouldn't the same factors lead to cheap prices there as well?

JLan said...


You'd think so, but the ready extension of credit and second mortages or home equity lines of credit has made it very easy for people, both rich and poor, to live above their means. Hopefully this trend will start to change now as people won't be able to spend more than they actually make/have.

Incidentally, this is true not just in hareidi areas but also in MO ones as well. It's just the scale that's different.

tnspr569 said...

The kosher stores in New York can't even compare to some of the kosher stores that can be found out of town - and this is simply in terms of cleanliness! It's sad that a clean store with good service is considered a rarity in the tri-state area. Most people accept the conditions of some of the most disgusting stores as the standard.

Aside from that, I find it odd that customers who wish to return a product to a kosher store are treated like criminals (as opposed to a regular grocery store, where a product return is a routine occurrence).

mother in israel said...

Ora, sometimes the prices are cheaper in Israeli haredi stores because of bulk buying, but sometimes they are much lower quality. If you compare the ingredients in the "mehadrin," cheaper versions of many food items you will find that you get what you pay for.

Dave in DC said...

One place trying to raise the bar vis a vis standards for frum business is
Without revealing too much, I can tell you that this sort of consumer information is not always received well, drawing accusations of being motzi shem ra and other sins. It's sad to me that a well-produced, meticulously edited consumer survey could be trashed as lashon hara, but maybe that's an indicator just how wedded Jewish businesses are to their low standards :-/