Israeli Supermarket Chain Offers Cheap Online Prices for Haredim, Sparking Secular Protest

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Ultra-Orthodox Jews shop in a supermarket in Jerusalem.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews shop in a supermarket in Jerusalem.Credit: Emil Salman

Over the past few months, despite rising prices everywhere, Israel doesn’t seem to be facing any major social protest. Among secular Israelis, anger seems directed mainly at the Shufersal chain, after it emerged that it operates an online shopping website for the ultra-Orthodox, which is cheaper than its main website, Shufersal Online. The atmosphere recalls the “cottage cheese protest” of 2011, which led to general social protest.

The atmosphere is part and parcel of the political situation: After many years, the current coalition does not include any Haredi parties. Moreover, after years in which Benjamin Netanyahu focused public discourse on the Iranian threat, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett last week said the passage of the budget was the most important moment of this government. Social and economic issues that were neglected have returned to center stage.

The new political situation has made it easier for the Finance Ministry under Avigdor Lieberman to tax items important to many Haredim, such as sweetened soft drinks and disposable tableware, and it seems there’s a chance secular social protest will succeed.

The protest against Shufersal has had its effect – the chain announced it was removing the Haredi site. The longtime CEO of the company, Itzhak Aberkohen, which reports annual sales of some 15 billion shekels ($4.83 billion), is used to getting compliments for his leadership from the business world. On Thursday, Shufersal posted a clip in which Aberkohn admitted defeat regarding the sectorial online purchase site and thanked those who drew his attention to it, as if it had not been part of a marketing ploy to appeal to the ultra-Orthodox, a growing group in Israel with growing internet use as well.

Shufersal CEO Itzhak Aberkohen.Credit: Eyal Toueg

His announcement may have put some wind in the sails of the secular protesters. A Facebook group called “The Secular Majority” has announced plans to establish a food co-op, open seven days a week, which does not prioritize the ultra-Orthodox. The message received is that the giant Shufersal is not omnipotent when it comes to consumers, and certainly not when it comes to smaller companies.

Shufersal probably weighed profit and loss over its move. On the one hand, they want to increase Haredi customers, but on the other, the latter don’t shop much online right now. Now that the ultra-Orthodox shopping site has been shut down, the secular online customers will cover the losses. We may assume that the Haredi site will return after adjustments that don’t cut into Shufersal’s profits but don’t really benefit secular shoppers.

Lower prices to attract Haredim at the expense of secular consumers are not new, nor are they exclusive to Shufersal. Shufersal simply got caught this time. “Secular people don’t care if they pay more. Haredim won’t buy from us unless we offer lower prices,” a senior official at another supermarket chain said. In other words, secular shoppers are suckers who let the supermarket chains make more and more profits at their expense.

But what would happen if the chains were boycotted because they were open or closed on Shabbat, and not because of prices, by one odd Facebook group. Would Shufersal change its ways? Probably not. Secular people can be praised, as long as the rabbis don’t get angry. Sales to Haredim account for about 1 billion shekels a year, and this group does what it’s told by its leaders.

When Aberkohn asked last year by TheMarker if he would buy the Delek gas stations, with their convenience stores open on the Sabbath, he said he would not. “Shufersal serves everyone in Israel without reference to religion, race or gender, therefore it won’t open stores on Shabbat. That’s why I decided not to open a chain in the Arab community, because most of those sales are on Friday and Saturday. Deciding to work on Shabbat means giving up the Haredi community and that’s not right for a food chain.”

In light of the determined approach of the Haredim, secular consumers will have to do much more if they want significant achievements – that is, take to the streets, even if it’s less convenient.

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