Supersized Supermarkets Invade Tiny Israeli Desert Town of Netivot

City of 30,000 has seven large supermarket branches with at least two more on the way.

Yanir Yagna
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Yanir Yagna

When David (Dada ) Knafo remembers back to the early 1980s when he opened his small grocery store in the center of the southern city of Netivot, a big smile appears. Nostalgia picks up his spirits: "Thirty years ago it was different here, everyone came to my store, it used to be much better," said Knafo. "Before all these [supermarket] chains, the grocery stores worked without a break, anyone with a few pennies in his pocket would open a grocery store and make not a bad living from it."

Thoughts of the present remove Knafo's smile. "Lately, we the grocery store owners in Netivot come to work just to pass the time. There is no livelihood here any more, all the customers have abandoned us in favor of the sales at the chain stores and we are left with almost no one. Those chains have finished us," he said.

After the big discount chains all opened branches in the city, Netivot was left with only five or six grocery stores, he said, counting them on his fingers.

Netivot is a city of only 30,000, and it is hard to understand how it can have seven large supermarket branches with at least two more huge ones on the way - and another 10 medium-sized supermarkets.

Business is strong in Netivot and people are coming to shop from all over the surrounding region, from as far as Sderot and even Be'er Sheva, said Gabi Trabelsi, a young entrepreneur from the city. And this does not apply only to supermarkets, but also to other businesses, he said. "We see how they have succeeded in bring a different clientele that in the past would not have come to Netivot," said Trabelsi.

Almost 40 years ago the Cohen family from Moshav Bet Hagadi outside the city opened the first "big" supermarket in Netivot, after their small one could not keep up with the constant stream of customers coming every day. Until then there were only small corner groceries in town. Fifteen years ago the Cohens decided to move their small supermarket and turn it into a much bigger one, marking the start of their Mahsanei Shuk chain. "The smaller supermarkets and grocery stores are not managing to survive," said Gabi Cohen, a family member. "There is no logical explanation for the phenomenon. In my opinion there is no room for more chains, it's crazy, everyone wants to come to Netivot."

As for local residents, they have become accustomed to low prices and competition, especially in the last year since the Kimat Hinam chain opened a huge store and is building even more space. "It's a good thing when such a chain opens a big branch in Netivot. There is heavy competition between the stores and the residents are the ones who profit. They are enjoying low prices," said one local.

The supermarkets are also fighting over the ultra-Orthodox market. Almost everyone is selling products with the strictest kashrut standards in an attempt to attract the 30% of the local populace that is Haredi. The battle between the chains is particularly fierce in the Haredi neighborhoods, and the ultra-Orthodox community, which used to buy mainly from the small grocery stores, is now, too, moving slowly to the large chains.

"It is not clear what is happening in Netivot, everyone is asking the same question," said Avner Hadad, manager of one of the city's Barkol supermarket stores, which cater to the ultra-Orthodox population. "There are in Netivot and the surrounding moshavim and kibbutzim some 40,000 people. There are 13 large supermarkets in the city, there is no economic justification for it," he said. The Haredim are abandoning their local stores, Hadad added, saying they'll at most "buy bread and milk there."

But most residents are happy just to enjoy the low prices and big selection - while it lasts. The thing that worries them is not the stores and chains - or their profits - but that if some of them are forced to close, many local residents will lose their jobs.

The Yesh supermarket branch in Netivot.Credit: Ilan Assayag



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