'Shabbos robe' sellers struggle

US haredi women wait to buy robes as semiannual sale approaches in NY.

robes 224.88 (photo credit: Michal Lando)
robes 224.88
(photo credit: Michal Lando)
A few days before New Year's, the racks at several haredi loungewear and hostess gown stores were still full of winter "Shabbos robes," elegant but practical velour robes worn by haredi women at home. Women were browsing, but they weren't buying. Most years, the secular new year comes and goes without the haredim noticing, as they are already months into the Jewish new year. But this year, a group of haredi women are waiting impatiently. Come January 1, the 29 retailers across the US and Canada that sell loungewear and hostess gowns are slated to begin a coordinated sale, months after the usual sale time. The legality of such an agreement, however, is questionable under US antitrust laws, which forbid businesses to collude to keep prices high. A growing concern over the survival of this niche market led a group of retailers and manufacturers this summer to form the Loungewear and Hostess Gown Council, which synchronized sale dates and markup prices. Sales are scheduled to be held on January 1 and on July 4, 2008, and the markup price for shabbos robes increased from 50 percent to 65% above wholesale. "We, as a robe business - unlike any other business - have something very unique to give the religious customer," said Beverly Luchfeld, president of Raza Designs, one of the most popular manufacturers of shabbos robes. "Most of the other merchandise can be found in Walmart, Macy's, etc., but we cater to the needs of this unique customer and should therefore be able to profit." The robes, an essential part of most haredi women's wardrobes, are typically bought twice a year - before Succot and Pessah. They are designed to be elegant enough to honor Shabbat and holidays, but comfortable enough for women to wear even while working in the kitchen. "They look like an evening gown, but fit like a jumpsuit," said Luchfeld, who also manufactures weekday robes, modest Christian clothing and Muslim garb "reflective of an era past." "You can wear them all day, sweat and entertain in them, and even sleep in them," Luchfeld said. The robes date back to the "old world," where they were called "pondele." Though similar robes were worn by secular women through the mid-20th century, secular fashion became increasingly less formal, and hostess gowns became a thing of the past. But for haredi women, the shabbos robe has never gone out of fashion. Every year, women wait for the robes - which range in price from $150-$250, depending on the style - to go on sale. But this year, they have had to wait several months longer than usual. Winter has already chilled the city to the bone, and the women are getting impatient. "They haven't bought that much before the sale, and they come in very angry that [the robes] are not on sale," said Luchfeld. Typically stores begin their sales at the end of the Jewish holidays in time for the new season, when warm-weather robes are replaced with winter ones. And women have become accustomed to buying only on sale. "I never buy at regular price, I wait for the sales," said Borough Park resident Tobi, who stocks up for the next season a year in advance. "I don't believe in paying these prices." But for many years, the stores have been struggling to make ends meet, said Luchfeld. "I've seen the business go downhill, and I told them [retailers] it's a real shame, because this is a unique product," said Luchfeld. "You can't get it at Nordstrom." But many retailers are losing money on shabbos robes, said Luchfeld. "It's become a hobby, and you can't stay alive." In order to increase sales, stores would price each other out by competing to go on sale first. To avoid competition and ensure profitability, the retailers and manufacturers agreed in an August meeting to stave off sales until January 1, allowing them more time to sell at full price and avoid competition. "We were all running on each other's throats," said Leah of Borough Park's Lingerie Shop. In addition, the group agreed to increase the markup on the garments gradually to "secure a healthy margin." A 65% markup was initiated for the 2007 holiday season. Next Pessah, they plan to increase the markup again by a percentage still to be determined. But US antitrust laws call into question the legality of such an agreement. According to the Sherman Act, the principle antitrust law, every contract, combination or conspiracy in restraint of trade is unlawful. "That law has developed to mean unreasonable restraint of trade is unlawful," said Saul Morgenstern, chair of the antitrust group at New York's Kaye Scholer law firm. "The court will go through hoops to measure whether the agreement is good for competition or bad." Price-fixing is usually considered "per se" unlawful, said Morgenstern. "If all sellers of a particular good get together and say, 'Competition is not helping us, we have to raise prices,' it looks pretty bad." Jewish law allows price-setting by associations of manufacturers and suppliers, but says such price-fixing must be approved by a communal authority, according to an article on MyJewishLearning.com by Prof. Nahum Rakover. A far-reaching opinion on consumer protection can be found in the writings of Rabbi Menahem Ha-me'iri, the 13th-century Provencal Talmud commentator. Ha-me'iri holds that artisans do not have the authority to stipulate prices, even with the approval of a distinguished man, since such practices cause a loss to the townspeople: "It appears to me that the members of a particular trade are not permitted to set prices for their work without permission of the townspeople, since the townspeople would otherwise be forced to take an unfair loss" (Bet Ha-behira on Bava Batra 9a). Luchfeld says the Shabbos robe sellers are trying to create a "healthy, diverse market that respects a full retail markup." "Antitrust laws refer to a retail outlet that tries to take over the market and destroy the competition," said Luchfeld. "We are all-inclusive and are working together to encourage diversity, competition, and survival of an industry." A similar effort by robe sellers to band together failed five years ago. "Some broke the sale, hoping to beat everyone else," said Luchfeld. But this year, everyone has kept to the agreement. "They saw the writing on the wall: If they didn't take a stand, they wouldn't have business." Earlier this year, ads announcing the sales and a list of participating stores were placed in Hamodia and Der Yid, two haredi newspapers. And signs are currently posted in the windows of all the retailers, notifying customers of the agreement. "It might be that some stores will lose out, and others will succeed," said Luchfeld. "They will have to find ways to bring people in." Three weeks ago, the council held an "emergency meeting" to do just that. Luchfeld wrote an e-mail urging retailers to attend: "We have succeeded in avoiding a 'Sale Mode of Business,' but we are not succeeding in attracting traffic to the store." The letter urged store owners to come ready with ideas to stimulate traffic "without breaking our 'Sale Policy.'" "If we break any form of sale, we will lose the customers' confidence, and we will never be able to regain credibility again," wrote Luchfeld. Luchfeld also encouraged retailers to poll their youngest customers. "Are Shabbos robes, as they are now fashioned, still in vogue? What are the young kallot [brides] looking for?" wrote Luchfeld. "We have to understand the shifts in fashions, and the public's response to fashion." Some new trends are already noticeable. In the last few years, the weekday robes, which are shorter and less elegant and cost roughly $70, have begun to be replaced. "Lately, women have started wearing t-shirts and skirts at home," said Tobi. "I can be dressed well in t-shirt and skirt for $30, which are easily replaceable, instead of wearing housecoats, which I find ridiculous." But no one expects the Shabbos robe to be replaced. It is simply a matter of how to make businesses and customers see eye-to-eye. "I don't think it's a dying phenomenon, we just have to retrain the customer," said Luchfeld, "If we could afford to close doors for a few seasons, the customers would come begging for their Shabbos robes."