Call to 'talk to haredi pocketbooks' may be a stretch

Conference on haredi buying power cites Glatt kosher sushi, English lessons, and health foods as trends among haredim.

kosher sushi 88 (photo credit: )
kosher sushi 88
(photo credit: )
Glatt kosher sushi, English lessons and health foods are some of the new haredi consumer trends identified by participants in a Ramat Gan conference Wednesday that was from start to finish an ode to haredi buying power. But the call by haredi ad men and media people to "talk to the haredi's pocketbook" might have been more hype than concrete business advice, as long as haredi employment levels are low and haredi poverty is high. "With more and more haredim joining the work force and a growing presence of haredim from abroad - especially France - settling in Israel, or at least owning a house here, the haredi consumer market has gone through a revolution in the past few years," said Shalhevet Hasdiel, editor-in-chief of Fine, a magazine devoted to haredi high fashion and consumer trends. "The affluent haredi is no longer a rare specimen," added Hasdiel. "Rich ultra-Orthodox Jews are up on the latest dress styles - but only the modest ones. They want highline interior design - but they leave room for a large bookcase in the salon and two sinks, one for milk and one for meat, in the kitchen. They buy expensive cars - but they prefer vans that can transport all the children." The conference, sponsored by Hamil (The Israel Center for Management) and called Gefilte with Sushi - Turning Haredi Consumer Potential Into Reality, was attended by Arkadi Gaydamak and Communications Minister Ariel Atias (Shas). But besides Gaydamak - who is making a push to become Jerusalem's next mayor and needs haredi support to do it - there were no big business names present. True, the haredi consumer market might be growing. And the Internet and newspapers are making serious inroads, as pointed out by Ariel Konik, general manager of a chain of haredi newspapers called Kav Itonut Haredit. But the haredim do not have much extra cash to spend on luxury items. The vast majority of about 700,000 Israeli haredi consumers are significantly poorer on average than the general population. According to Dr. Daniel Gotlieb, a senior Bank of Israel economist, who was not invited to the conference, in 2004, the last year an extensive survey was published by the Central Bureau of Statistics, 59.4 percent of the haredi population lived under the poverty line (defined as half the median income), compared to 23% in the general population. Gottlieb, who has done extensive research on the haredi population for the Van Leer Institute, reckons that poverty has only worsened since 2004 in the wake of deep cuts in government child support grants. True, says Gottlieb, employment has risen, in part as a result of the cuts in social security payments and in part as a result of the Tal Law, which provided a legal way for haredi yeshiva students to enter the job market without doing army service. Whereas in 2004, 37% of haredi men were either working or actively looking for a job compared to 67.7% among all Jewish Israeli men, today the numbers are probably higher. But this employment increase has not made up for the welfare cuts, said Gottlieb. As a result, most haredim are still guided primarily by cost and kashrut criteria. But marketers are beginning to see signs of change. "Haredim tend to try to maximize cost efficiency when they buy groceries," said Nitzan Holtzberg, marketing and sales director of Nielsen Israel, a market research firm. "For instance, they buy milk in a bag, not in a carton, because it is cheaper and price controlled. They buy the simple soft cheeses instead of the fancy ones for the same reason. "But gradually, there has been a rise in demand for health foods, such a granola bars, mineral water and green tea, albeit at a slower rate than the general population." Holtzberg, who based his study on a panel of 2,900 respondents who represent the various sectors of Israeli society, including haredim, said that the ultra-Orthodox were also buying more frozen prepared foods. Holtzberg, who presented the study at Wednesday's conference, estimated that the rise in demand for prepared foods was tied to the change in haredi working habits. "As more haredim, men and women, enter the work market their spare time becomes more expensive. Demand for time-saving techniques like prepared foods increases." The glatt (mehadrin) kosher sushi bars in Ramat Gan's Diamond Exchange and at the Tel Aviv Hilton might be signs of a strengthening haredi consumer market. So too the rise in demand for English lessons or for luxury cars. But this is only one part of the story. Most haredi families are still just trying to make ends meet.