Trial Reopening of Israel's Markets Provides Respite, but No Redemption

Most market stalls are small businesses without the resources to adjust to new era of online shopping. Many are not expected to survive the coronavirus crisis

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A shopper at Tel Aviv's Carmel Market, November 27, 2020
A shopper at Tel Aviv's Carmel Market, November 27, 2020Credit: Moti Milrod

“People aged 60 to 70 are going hungry – they’re desperate. These are people who their whole lives rose at 5 A.M. and worked until 7 or 8 P.M. – that’s what they know how to do. [The closure] hasn’t only destroyed their income, it has destroyed their lives.”

That is how Lili Ben-Shalom, who rose to fame on the Channel 13 reality show “Game of Chefs” and is the owner of the well-known Georgian restaurant Racha in Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market, describes the fate of her neighboring stall owners. Over the past several weeks, she has become their unofficial spokeswoman.

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“About 40 of the 600 merchants in the Carmel Market have closed their businesses or put them up for sale. A lot more will be joining them. To the right [of Racha] there’s a ‘for sale’ sign and to the left a ‘for sale’ sign. Stall owners are offering to give away their businesses, just so they can avoid continuing to pay rent,” Ben-Shalom said.

At the end of November, Israel’s open-air markets were allowed to reopen on a trial basis subject to restrictions, such as no more than one person for every 7 square meters of floor space and monitors limiting traffic and looking out for violations. The trial period ended Sunday, after which the coronavirus cabinet will assess whether the markets can remain open and under what conditions.

Ben-Shalom said that whatever its conclusions, stall owners are determined to remain open. “If they get ticketed, they’ll burn the tickets. It’s not because they aren’t interested in the public’s health but because they can’t be a situation that a single supermarket in Israel is allowed to open but we can’t,” she said, noting that ordinary streetfronts stores were allowed to open, as were dollar stores.

“[The officials] don’t think we have influence and power because we’re not organized as we should be. So we’re going to organize and protest if they don’t allow us to reopen,” Ben-Shalom warned.

Tehila Yanai, the founder and co-CEO of the market research firm CofaceBDI, said that the trial reopening of the markets was destined for failure. “While last week they reopened the markets, but restaurants and food stalls, which have drawn much of the markets’ traffic in recent years, were not reopened so traffic in the markets has been thinner than in the past,” she said.

Jerusalem’s fabled Mahaneh Yehuda Market has suffered, too. Sales haven’t returned to what they were. It’ll take a long time for them to come back,” said Elkana Wissenstern, second-generation owner of a fish business that was founded in the 1980s.

“People [who shop here] have gotten used to going to the supermarket or other places. It’s enough that they get prices or services that are just a little better and they won’t come back,” Wissenstern said.

Israelis shopping in a local market — for the holidays and the lockdownCredit: Moti Milrod

“The old-timers who shopped in the market won’t leave us – they’ll go through fire and water for us, but the young, those who don’t care as much about the quality of the merchandise and just look for the best price, won’t be coming back,” Wissenstern said.

Mahaneh Yehuda has been through tough times, most notably the second intifada from 2000-05 that drove shoppers away, and even extensive renovations in the early 2000s that disrupted traffic. But Wissenstern said the pandemic was even worse for stall owners. “Sales are down 20 percent to 30 percent and we’ve reduced the number of workers,” he said.

A study by CofaceBDI conducted for TheMarker confirmed that: It estimated that Israel’s open-air markets have suffered sales losses of 3 billion shekels ($920 million) due to the coronavirus, about one-third the 2019 total.

Israel has about 30 markets with some 5,400 stalls. Just over 60 percent of the markets are in Jerusalem and the center of the country, with 21 percent in the north and 18 percent in the south. Nearly two thirds of the businesses in them are family-owned stalls with annual revenue of 450,000 to 1.2 million shekels.

“These are businesses that are the sole source of income for one or two families,” CofaceBDI’s Yanai said. She estimated that bigger stalls, with sales of 5 million to 8 million shekels, account for about 14 percent of the total, and the biggest businesses of them all, with annual turnover of 20 million shekels or more, account for just 2 percent of the total. Another 23 percent are medium-sized businesses doing 2 million to 3 million shekels a year of business.

“Because the majority of these businesses are small, most of them haven’t been able to adjust themselves to the new era and continue selling over the internet or by delivery.” Yanai predicted that many will not survive the pandemic.

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