The Wife, after spending a few weeks extensively researching refrigerators to
replace our 25- year-old Amcor XL, returned from the appliance store recently
wearing a wide smile.
“Wonderful,” I thought, believing that smile was a
sign we had sealed the deal; that this particular consumer ordeal was over; that
the weeks of Internet research and shlepping back and forth to various appliance
stores had yielded a refrigerator of which we could be proud.
indeed, The Wife had made the purchase. But that was not the source of her joy.
No, the smile was not because we were about to replace our noisy icebox with a
new one with 21st-century features. Rather, the Wife was smiling because she had
succeeded in getting the manager to knock a couple hundred shekels off the
“Wow,” I thought, “have we become acculturated, or what?” Entering
a large, established appliance store and bargaining with the manager over the
price of a refrigerator is – for both The Wife and me – a brave new
Neither of us grew up – her in Chicago, me in Denver – bargaining
for our goods. We never walked into Sears or Target with our folks who would
then proceed to talk the salesman down in price. The price listed was the price
If jeans cost $12.99, we paid $12.99. If we didn’t have $12.99, we
didn’t buy the jeans. Same with records, and baseball gloves, and televisions,
and refrigerators, and anything else that had a price tag.
something permanent, definite, etched-in-stone about a price tag. What the price
tag said was what the price was. Amazing concept.
Until we moved here.
Then, all of a sudden, price tags meant a lot less – if there even was a price
Israel has traveled light-years in many different spheres since I
moved here 30 years ago, not least in putting prices on items. It used to be
that prices were not listed on anything: not on freezers, not on refrigerators,
not on the goods in the supermarkets that fill the refrigerators and freezers.
And what that did was open the door to a perpetual bidding war.
price is listed, then you have to ask the salesman. But once you ask, and he
answers, you feel free to argue – or at least some feel free to argue.
NEVER felt free to argue. There were a few reasons for this.
First, in my
early years here – those bureaucratic-laden years trying to set everything up –
there was just too much to argue about: with the cab drivers, with the Bezek
people, with Absorption Ministry folks, with the Interior Ministry, with movers
carping that climbing a few steps to the apartment was not factored into the
Everything, it seemed, was an argument, a fight. So when
I went to buy some socks, I just wanted a tension-free
Secondly, I thought if the salespeople heard my heavy
American accent, they would smell an easy mark and just take me to the
Finally, I never felt free to argue with the salesman because I
did not really know how to do it; bargaining was simply not in my
Instead I would ask the price, the salesman would answer, and I’d
smile and say “ok,” thinking the price he quoted was final – like at Sears – and
there was no room for movement. At the same time, he must have been thinking,
“Wow, why can’t all my customers be like this guy?” And I don’t blame him – easy
customers in this land are a blessing.
SOON AFTER moving here, as I was
writing a college thesis on Mahaneh Yehuda, the colorful outdoor market in
Jerusalem, I decided that as part of the research I needed to work there for a
What I wanted was to work as a hawker in one of the fruit or
vegetable stalls, to rub shoulders with the locals, to soak up the atmosphere
and be better able to write my piece.
But standing there pretzel-limbed
in a market where many of the merchants had arms as thick as bread loaves,
looking and sounding like the American I was, and bespectacled in alleyways
where nary a salesman wore glasses, it wasn’t easy finding someone to take me
“What are we, a kibbutz?” one stall owner barked, when I told him I
wanted to volunteer for a week.
Another asked if I was really working
undercover for the tax authorities. A third – who sold “santarosa” plums – was
willing to take me under his wing, but cautioned me not to lower the prices when
the customers haggled.
“Why would they haggle?” I asked. “The
price per kilo is written on the sign.”
He gave a knowing chuckle. And he
was right. Customer after customer haggled, trying to get the price per kilo
down, trying to get me to throw in a few extra plums, trying every which way not
to pay the price posted for the plums.
THIS URGE, this need, this impulse
to bargain says something about our collective psyche. It’s axiomatic to say we
live here in fear of being a sucker, a frier.
Everyone bargains, so if
you don’t, you feel like you are being played.
And there is nothing
worse, nothing more of an insult to one’s manhood, than that feeling of being
That, by the way, is the emotion at work that renders standing in
line here so unsettling. Line-standing is not really that bad, so long as
everyone does it. But what makes it so galling, so unnerving here, is that while
you are waiting patiently, others are cutting in. You can’t relax because you
constantly need to be poised to pounce in case someone tries to move in ahead of
And the second element compelling us to bargain is honor. In this
country it’s almost an affront to one’s honor to pay the list price; as if the
list price is for the regular folk, not for us. Israelis love the feeling of not
only paying less, but of telling their friends they paid less. It’s a badge of
honor, a status thing.
In America you gain status by purchasing a
million-dollar home. Here you gain status by purchasing a million-dollar home
for $750,000. If you actually pay a million dollars for a million-dollar home,
you really haven’t done much.
Which explains The Wife’s smile, and my
unadulterated joy, at paying less than the list price for the
Finally, we had arrived.