The Buyer’s a Freier: Shopping, Israel-Style

Most people will be familiar with the doctrine “Let the buyer beware (or, for those who didn’t attend a crap school, Caveat emptor). Retailers in Israel, however, have significantly extended the scope of the doctrine and renamed it “The buyer is a freier” (Yiddish-derived Hebrew for “sucker”).

I am destined never to get fit. After getting into working out for the first time in my life, my local gym, on Sheinkin Street, recently closed following a serious fire. Apparently, a female member (who said “of course”?!) – whose time might have been better spent on mental exercises – left her towel on the sauna heater.

Now, knowing Israel and its natives as I do, approximately a week after the conflagration – and with no sign of the gym reopening – I decided, to be on the safe side, to cancel the direct debit (after notifying the gym). And, sure enough, it continued collecting payments from those who hadn’t.

The gym reopened last week, when I phoned to renew my membership. “Naturally,” I informed the irritatingly camp manager Gidi, “I expect to be credited with the one month I had frozen” (earlier in the year, whilst I was abroad).

“Of course not,” he squeaked, “you cancelled the contract.”

I started explaining the contractual principles of consideration and frustration to him – that, following the fire, I was receiving absolutely zilch for my payments, and that the contract had now become impossible to perform.

When, however, the squeaking started up again – and sensing the onset of a rage which might have been wrongly perceived as homo-, rather than “no one can really be this camp-”, phobic – I requested the details of the gym owner.

Eddie was an altogether more serious proposition. And, sitting opposite him in his office, I tried a less legalistic tack, testing whether an Israeli could comprehend the principle that “The customer is always right.” What works in Brent Cross, however, will not necessarily on Sheinkin. And Eddie merely added insult to injury by stating that I would also have to pay a fresh joining fee.

It is as if the whole Israeli retail industry is run on the principles of the shuk (market). It is quite common in these parts, even in large chain stores, to haggle over prices. And, on Thursday, my kiosk friend Avi described the bewilderment of a Fifth Avenue (New York) shop assistant, who – after Avi had purchased a pair of shoes – could not comprehend why he was demanding a gratis pair of socks and/or shoe polish.

The Israeli attitude towards customers has caused me to “lose it” on several occasions since my Aliyah (and I relate such not out of pride, but in the interests of authenticity) . . .

I lost my Israeli consumer ‘virginity’ towards the end of the 1990s on a well-deserving Dizengoff Street kiosk owner, who refused to believe – me . . . an Englishman! – that The Jerusalem Post I had purchased from him merely an hour earlier had its TV guide section missing.

His temerity so incensed me that I picked up another copy and ran for it. He gave chase, but I ended up losing him in the garden of some side street (for many months following, however, I had to take detours to avoid passing him).

Then, last year, in two separate incidents on King George Street – and provoked by unbelievable rudeness – I called a hardware store owner a “Polani” (Pole), and hurled a frozen yogurt back at the woman who had only just served it to me.

You are probably thinking that I need to attend anger management classes. And perhaps I do. But when you have to deal with such attitudes on a daily basis, the odd outburst is inevitable for all but the most placid of souls (and I have never been described as that).

I leave my favourite Israeli shopping story, however, till last. Walking out of a shop on Jerusalem’s Ben Yehuda Street, and inspecting the roll of fax paper that he had just purchased, my cousin Marc realised that it was the wrong size.

Making an immediate about-turn, and politely requesting that the shop owner exchange it for the correct one, he was greeted with the now legendary reply, “Where do you think you are . . . in America?!”

One thing is for sure – the term “retail therapy” does not have its origins in Israel.


17 responses to “The Buyer’s a Freier: Shopping, Israel-Style

  1. That was funny: I think you need the following course.


  3. Steve Davis


    I’d love to find out more about why you threw the yogurt…

    I’m sure we all have stories of immense incredulity of the lack of awareness and/or understanding of consumer needs in Israel (this in itself obviously being a generalisation), but I did once disconnect my bank manager’s phone for him talking on it every 30 seconds, making a short meeting into an arduous task. His response to that was “Take your money away from here!” To which I shouted back, “Have I landed in the third world? I’m from England, is that the best you can do?” My “England” trump card seems to shame many people into action.

    I too, had reason to speak with Gidi last week, who gently chided me (in English) that I had frozen my payments for the gym and now I need to “thaw them out”. I said that I’d give a call to Visa and see if they could look in the freezer? “Mah?” he inquired, and we gayly carried on the conversation in Hebrew.

    Good luck.

  4. If you’ve been so disheartened by Gidi and the Sheinkin gym that you’d rather look for a new one than give Gidi the satisfaction of taking more of your money, I’d be wanting to “go out with a bang” if I were you.

    The keyboard is mightier than the chutzpah of the Israeli retailer (well actually I’m not sure, but it sounds good anyway). Hit him where it hurts – on the internet!

    Mention the gym by name in your blog. Create a Facebook group for all those who have been taken for a ride by Gidi. Send out an email regaling your crappy experience to your entire address book (either for real or “pretend” – i.e. to “undisclosed recipients” depending on your mood) and copy Gidi in.

    In short, spread the word about his dodgy conduct, and make sure he sees it (speech is still free in this country, right?).

    Maybe then Gidi will rethink his approach to customer “service” and understand who he was dealing with when he took you for a freier.


  5. We got our introduction to buyer’s a freier syndrome on arrival and had a lawsuit on our hands within 2 weeks of our new life in Israel.

    What galled me was paying the equivalent of a month’s rent to a real estate agent who did nothing to argue for his clients, because the landlord also had paid him. And he’d pay him again for coming up with another freier for his Emek Rafaim property. Israelity bites…the customer!

  6. Freier may be derived from Romanian. I know that it is widely used in Romania…

  7. Mike,
    Surely you’ve been here long enough to know that in Israel “customer service” is an oxymoron!

  8. Re the yogurt throwing incident, Steve, it all started because the kiosk didn’t have any change, and the woman . . . . oh, it’s my blog . . . the bitch expected me to pay a few shekels more, rather than her taking a few less. I pointed out, politely, that this was probably not the best way of encouraging repeat custom, to which she impugned my intelligence, to which I returned her frozen yogurt (with interest) . . . and, yes, letting her keep the change (I had already paid).

  9. Eli (Richard) Gross

    Way back in the 70’s I decided to check out how much the buyer is a freier here.
    The Jerusalem Shuk. A silver(?) Magen David. The asking price: 26 Lirot (10,000 of them to today’s Shekel).
    I said: Too much.
    He said: How much?
    I had no idea. So I walked away. He shouted after me: 22.
    Then: 20.
    Then: 17…15…12.
    The last price I heard was 5, by which time I was convinced it was at best silver plate.
    So I knew: As ‘d’ price tends to zero we get closer to the truth and true value.
    Now all I have to do is pay as little as possible for as much as possible.
    There is no such thing as a ‘final offer’.
    Yesterday’s final offer is on 30% discount, pending tomorrow’s reduction.

  10. richardmillett

    You’re lucky you haven’t been done for burglary and assault. The knock at the door could still yet come.

  11. “Burglary”?! Are you sure you went to law school, Rich?!

  12. Shimon Soester

    Mike ,
    I had a meeting this week in Rothschild , and my GPS took me , for some reason best known to itself – it is Israeli after all, through the Kasbah of Borochov. I even went past General Melchett St. , and am pleased that as an ex-Hasmonean you live next to a big shul , as befits a Sheine Yid.
    Anyway , my conclusion is that , despite the cliché , you live in “the bubble”. Tel Avivis from the “holy basin” of Sheinkin , Rothschild and Borochov , look , dress , walk and behave in a different way from other Israelis. You can see immediately who is a native , and who has come to visit from Ramat Gan or Bat Yam. In the Bet She’an Valley I have never had problems with camp gym managers , they would get eaten alive in a pitta. The bad manners and rudeness you talk about are a general Israeli issue , but there is a certain feeling of togetherness that comes with it , that I feel isn’t there in “The Big Orange”.

  13. Shimon,

    Gidi would probably love to “get eaten alive”. Shame you didn’t tell me you were coming . . . I would have arranged for you to look at some homosexuals. Sounds like it would have been an interesting anthropological experience for you. And, for your complete lack of usefulness in my Mad Dogs and English Teachers post, I might even have set a couple of them on you . . . which would have had you reappraising your view on the absence of “a certain feeling of togetherness” in Tel Aviv.


    PS By the way, did your English teacher father instruct you to leave spaces before commas?

  14. Reading this blog has saved my sanity on more than one occasion when I have been enjoying the locals at their best, wondering whether I am the only idiot who thinks I am right and they are wrong; then I discover that there is at least one other idiot who thinks the way I do, and I feel better for it. After an experience today it was, indeed, comforting to recall (with a bit of prompting from an unlikely quarter) this ancient post from the days when dogs could piddle freely on Rothschild .

    Jack Cohen, the legendary founder of Tesco and long-time neighbour of the Emporium of Jewish Boys’ Education on Hogwarts Hill Road, had two business mottos. While “Pile it high and sell it cheap” has successfully passed into the language, “You can’t do business sitting on your arse” was understandably less popular with the mid-twentieth century, pre–Murdoch, media.

    But this morning, standing for 25 (twenty-five!) minutes in the queue at the Raanana Industrial Area’s Mega Balls Store, I realized just how apt that second motto is.

    I was abnormally early for my regular Friday morning “Hunt the two-for-one” game and reached the checkouts well before they had taken on the look of the Ben Gurion Departure Hall at 2 o’clock on a midsummer’s morning. Similar to the way, every Wednesday, an old colleague used to examine form in The Sporting Life and then place a bet “each way” on the 3.30 at Newmarket, sizing up the competence of the check-out cashiers against the length of their lines, I plumped for a comparatively slow filly whose handicap was compensated for by the fact that there was only one other person in the queue whose purchases were already being registered in the till. And, as the Prince of Denmark once memorably exclaimed “Aye, there’s the rub”. Perhaps under the influence of cleaning fluid sniffing in the third aisle, I had completely forgotten that it is not enough to consider the horse – you have to look at the jockey as well.

    I should have realized by the carefully crafted “I just threw something on to go to the supermarket but it just happens to be perfectly ironed and perfectly matching” look that this was Israel-born Raanana “You Americans aren’t going to show me how to behave” Woman. She of course took forever. Why not? She was after all paying for the service so she had to make sure of getting absolutely maximum value for her money (Ani lo freierit) and ensure, just like the people who saunter across zebra crossings talking on their bloody cellphones, that everybody else cannot get on with their day. Twice, she cleared off to fetch something she forgot leaving the cashier quite happily twiddling her thumbs and me examining the multitude of available varieties of chewing gum stuck next to the counter. The two ladies even found time for a chat about the advantages of the Home Delivery Scheme. But the piece de resistance came when, after finally going under starters orders (after presenting my “You” card – what a joke in a country that only recognizes “Me”) the cashier promptly took a call on her mobile and just sat there talking instead of dealing with my “Two for the Price of One Sano Kitchen Towels” – if you are You – and Tayadent Mouthwash. At that point I blew a fuse and launched into a tirade about the service at Mega Balls and, running the risk of being stampeded by all twenty fillies coming out of their starting gates, demanded to speak to the manager. I always feel at a disadvantage in these situations because I am being sarcastic in a second language that does not abide sarcasm (I have the same problem with my third language – American). Of course the Israeli “You Americans don’t know how to behave in our country” Men were looking at me in utter amazement and probable disgust thinking “Yankie, go home” (At least in Raanana, you are never accused of being English).

    When the manager finally arrived she informed me that she had just been on a trip to England and the service was worse there – I wondered whether she had been in the queue for lunch at the Brixton Remand Centre. In any event, I told her Jack Cohen’s second motto, about not doing business sitting on your arse, and suggested they take a leaf out of Wall Mart’s book, where cashiers stand and the average waiting time is about three minutes. Of course, it is totally inhumane but then, according to some, so is horse racing.

    And I was so busy complaining, that I did not even get around to protesting the high prices of everything.

  15. John, in spite of melchett mike’s presence in the list of WordPress blogs on Israeli customer service already resembling Phil “The Power” Taylor’s in the roll of PDC World Darts Championship winners, your comment has given me pause to pen yet another post on the subject. Watch this space.

    Clearly George Costanza had also never heard Jack Cohen’s “second motto” . . .

    Though I will be checking the veracity of it the next time I have dinner with Dame Shirley at my friend’s – to whom I do get invited on Shabbos 😉 – in Herzliya Pituach.

    Gut voch,

    The Other Idiot

  16. Mike

    A couple of points:

    1. As you know, it is a far shorter walk from Melchett to Herzlia Pituach than Raanana.

    2. I assume that the friend you refer to is “Sylvia” (of your cheap wine fame). I have trawled the entire Herzlia Pituach Telephone Directory and cannot find a single “Sylvia”. Is she ex-directory?


    The Principal Idiot

  17. No, the friend I refer to is not Piano Nobile Sylvia . . . though do you really think I would have friends – not to mention in Herzliya Pituach – who would agree to be listed in the telephone directory? You are mixing with the wrong people, darling! 😉

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