One day in June 2016, Nachum Bitan bought Mega, a collapsing supermarket chain, for 455 million shekels – around $125 million, real money. I don’t know what Bitan has done since then to improve the business, but it seems he’s been having some problems digesting the deal. He didn’t get many compliments in the inevitable “Year since Mega was bought and what’s changed” articles.
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I can understand it. If a year after the acquisition, Mega branches look like the one on Tel Aviv’s Yehuda Hamaccabi Street, Bitan has his work cut out for him. Based on my experience, he overpaid.
In fact, based on that one experience at that one branch, Mega isn’t within a mile of the standards expected of a retail chain in 2017 – not in price, not in service, not in reliability and not in professionalism.
It all happened on Friday afternoon, August 11. It was 31 degrees Celsius – 88 Fahrenheit – but the humidity made it feel like 97. Mega’s air conditioning was working, so I went in.
I filled my shopping cart, carefully checking the cost of the items and which were on sale. After about half an hour I went to pay.
The cashier, wearing the name tag Asama, scanned the products and handed me the receipt. It was about 333 shekels, which seemed a bit steep, so I checked it line by line.
In no time I realized that the Ben & Jerry’s hadn’t been discounted to 40 shekels for two pints – the receipt stated 49.80. I asked Asama why.
“You took another type that isn’t discounted,” she answered.
“Excuse me?” I said. “Where does it say which types are discounted and which aren’t? How am I supposed to know? These are flavors I buy a lot here. Please check this and deduct the discount from the bill.”
Asama, at the bottom of the Mega food chain, could do no such thing; the attentions of a more senior person were required. Right across the street is a Super-Sol Express where every employee can void a sale. It isn’t rocket science. But hey, what do I know?
While awaiting the arrival of an empowered Mega employee to fix the matter, I further perused the receipt. To my amazement, I had been charged 84.22 shekels for a package of frozen Norwegian salmon marked at 69 shekels. Now I was getting mad. I know how much frozen fish costs.
I asked Asama why I’d been overcharged and showed her the price on the package. She muttered something about it not being her fault and said I would have to check everything with the head cashier.
Well, now I wasn’t just a random customer shopping on Friday for Shabbat. Now I was a VIP. I’d be handled by the shift manager! Or the chief economist! Or whatever they call the person responsible for handling pissed-off clients. I’d saunter over to the head cashier, and if my ice cream melted and my frozen fish turned to slush, so be it. At least I was being served.
Actually, matters with the head cashier didn’t go that smoothly. It took some time to figure out how a 69-shekel piece of fish had morphed into an 84-shekel one. While I waited, I continued to check the receipt. Maybe there were more mistakes.
There were. “How did that get into my bill?” I asked the head cashier, pointing at a charge for sour candy that I hadn’t bought.
“I don’t know,” she muttered. She’d have to look into it.
“Look, ma’am,” I said, “this isn’t good. Now I have to check every line on the receipt. So far, from what I’ve checked, I’ve been overcharged 45 shekels. I want you to cancel the whole bill and start over.”
Flash of brilliance
To her credit, she understood me and voided the bill. She went back with me to Cash Register No. 5, unpacked the stuff and recalculated the bill from scratch. Finally, I had a new receipt – about 247 shekels. After 20 minutes of checking, I’d “saved” 85 shekels, around a quarter of the original amount.
Now, 85 shekels in 20 minutes works out to 255 shekels an hour, around 2,000 shekels a working day and 44,000 shekels a month. Not bad. I’d make it to the top 10%.
Hey, I thought. Maybe this was a great idea for a startup! Most people can’t be bothered to check their supermarket receipt and figure they don’t need to. I think they do. I could train energetic young people how to check a supermarket bill, send them out to Mega and Bitan Wine branches, and then we’d all get a piece of the “savings” they’d find for customers.
Great idea, eh? Well, I woke up from my dream of easy riches pretty fast. The moment I got the lower bill, my VIP status was over. My stuff slumped there rotting at Cash Register No. 5. Nobody thought to help repack it. “Let that jerk work a little,” they probably thought. “Let his ice cream melt. Let his salmon reek. That nudnik who checked his receipt and found mistakes – he deserves it.”
After all, Asama had run out of patience. She’s a working woman, it was a Friday, she had a bus to catch and the buses would soon stop running. But the jerk wasn’t moving on. His ice cream had already melted and his salmon had given up the ghost. It was all the same to him to stand there a bit longer and check his bill again to make sure no new mistakes had been made. Asama started to shout. I gave her as good as I got.
I know, I know. It wasn’t Asama’s fault. It was Nachum Bitan’s fault for not kicking the tires before he bought the supermarket chain. If Bitan had done his homework and not overpaid, maybe everything would look different.
I left the place feeling pretty lousy – less about the ice cream and salmon and more about the time wasted, the pointless anger and the knowledge that there was precious little I could do. Except boycott Mega until I’m tired of doing that. But what about my friends and neighbors?
So I’ve written this. Maybe someone will have a better idea how to bring Mega into the 21st century.
The next day, Saturday afternoon, I had a corrective experience. After a morning swim, I dropped by Super Yuda, which is next to the Peer cinema building. True, prices are a bit higher. But a discount is a discount and everything worked like clockwork. Without sweating bullets, I saved 25 shekels on beers, granola and cheese. It was a pleasure.