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(photo credit: Courtesy Photo)
Haredi journalist Shalhevet Hasdiel is enthusiastic about the new branch of Hamashbir Lazarchan that will soon open on Rehov Bnei Akiva, Bnei Brak's busy main street.
With the blessing of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and a host of prominent local rabbis, the newest branch of the Israeli department store chain will be exclusively open to female customers - offering what its planners believe may be the world's first department store open only to women.
The entire staff - from the storeroom workers and security guard at the entrance to the buyers and store director - will be local haredi women.
"It's going to solve a serious problem," the elegantly dressed Hasdiel told The Jerusalem Post, "because the issue of modesty is cardinal here."
"In addition," she added, "I think it's a totally awesome marketing gimmick."
Following its decision to close all of its branches on Saturdays, the Hamashbir chain has won favor with haredi rabbis, and added the slogan: "A Shabbat-observant chain" to its advertisements in the haredi sector.
Israel Goldberg owns the Israel advertising firm, which specializes in marketing in the haredi sector. According to Goldberg, who is the new store's advertising and marketing consultant, convenience - rather than modesty - is the logic behind the new Hamashbir branch.
"Haredi women just don't drive," Goldberg said. "If a woman is seen driving in Bnei Brak, the next day her husband will be called upon to take their children out of school."
The new store will thus offer an easily accessible shopping center that will not require traveling by bus outside of the city.
Modestly tucked away on the second floor of a renovated building, the new store will have no exterior display windows. At 1100 square meters, it is about a third of the size of other department stores, and its focus will be on women's lingerie, cosmetics, shoes, fashion accessories, head coverings, and kitchenware.
"Obviously," Goldberg said, "the merchandise will cater to the needs and requirements of haredi women."
Shades of red and other bright colors, which are a no-no among haredi women, will not be sold at the store, while the non-provocative underwear in the lingerie department will be discreetly packaged and handled. Double sets of sheets will also not be available in the linen department, and there will be no halachically forbidden mixes of different types of fabrics.
There will, however, be a wide selection of modest hosiery, as well as plenty of bathrobes - which haredi women often wear at home to protect their clothing during long days of housework in the company of children.
"It's an issue of privacy," Goldberg explained. "Even if it's for women only, there will also be young girls walking around, and they don't need to see these things. Nowadays, some women even choose to travel out of town to buy underwear, because they don't want familiar faces staring over their shoulder while they make their selection."
The cosmetics department will offer a tucked-away corner for makeovers.
Focus groups created to learn about the needs of potential clients revealed that not only the women shoppers, but also the husbands who will be denied entrance to the store, were enthusiastic about its opening.
In addition to providing hundreds of new jobs for haredi women, the store will also allow them to comfortably indulge in one of the only legitimate leisure activities condoned by the haredi community, and to do so in familiar surroundings while being waited upon by other women who speak their language and understand their special needs.
Nevertheless, Goldberg emphasizes, "It's going to be very high-tech, kind of like an international duty-free store, not at all anachronistic."
In addition to special accommodations for strollers and young children (60% of haredi women shop with their children), the store will also boast escalators, which have yet to make an appearance in Bnei Brak.
The opening of the new Hamashbir branch is part of a growing awareness on the part of mainstream Israeli companies of the marketing potential offered by the country's haredi communities.
According to another expert on haredi marketing who did not wish to be identified, "the excitement about the store is not so much about the issue of modesty, but rather about this community's sense that its needs are being addressed and catered to."
Whereas sit-down eateries are strictly condemned by local rabbis because of the danger of immodest mixing between men and women, the new department store might just have a small refreshments corner, where the women-only crowd of shoppers will be able to sit down for coffee.
"I'm really curious to see if it will succeed," Hasdiel said. She added that she did not see any problem with the segregated shopping environment. "As far as I'm concerned, that's a men's-only problem," she said.