Slinging mud

Eager Israeli youth flogging Dead Sea products at shopping centers across the rural US give Americans an unexpected taste of 'sabra charm.'

mall salesman 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
mall salesman 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Suburban malls in the United States are downright tranquil. The soothing muzak slows people down to a stupefied state of haziness, the displays are visually soft and comforting and, best of all, you don't need to elbow your way through crowds or deal with that pesky Yediot Aharonot salesman at every escalator. With personal space being part of the American constitution, if not the Constitution, shoppers know they can go to the mall to relax - with the unwritten promise that they won't be jostled or assaulted. Enter Galia, a 21-year-old recently demobilized from the IDF. "Can I ask you a question?" she asks a startled shopper as she blocks his way along the spacious aisles of the suburban Castleton Square Mall in Indianapolis, Indiana. Spoken with the energy and inflection of an over-caffeinated talk-show host, the query almost sounds like a command. And the slight, almost exotic accent, along with Galia's Middle Eastern complexion, only adds to the conclusion that she's no Hoosier. Not really knowing how to answer, and definitely not used to being accosted in his local mall, the shopper - named Mark - does what any polite American would do. He says, "Sure." Mark, who turns out to be a family practitioner in the Indianapolis area, had only stopped by Castleton to pick up a mouse at the computer store. But half an hour later, he walks out with more than $200 of cosmetic products purchased from Galia. She's one of hundreds of young Israelis - many with dual American-Israeli citizenship - who for the last few years have been forging an alternative pre- or post-army rite of passage to the de-rigueur Far East trek - and making a lot of money in the process. Welcome to the cross-cultural world of Dead Sea mall carts. Boasting hundreds of attractively designed, demonstration-equipped mobile kiosks manned by equally well-groomed, young Israeli salespeople, the Dead Sea skin care products retail industry has become a ubiquitous presence on the American mall landscape over the last five years. Young Israeli entrepreneurs, some fresh out of the army themselves, have recruited hundreds of even younger Israelis like Galia - eager and energetic and aggressive - to bring a little slice of the Middle East shouk atmosphere to places like the Castleton mall or Columbia, South Carolina, or Wichita, Kansas, and scores of other middle American locations. They'll be coming after your sons and daughters next. What happens when the placid, cookie-cutter, in-your-place culture of America meets the reckless, relentless, in-your-face bravado of young Israelis with dollars in their eyes? American-Israeli relations may never be the same. IT'S NEARLY impossible to find a mid-size to large American mall without a Dead Sea product cart, selling facial peel, hand, foot and wrinkle creams, salt for the body, nail buffer kits and mud masks. And behind each one, there's an Israeli connection. More than 40 companies are estimated to be currently operating upward of 500 mall carts throughout the US, many of them small, grassroots organizations founded by former salespeople - like Nir Gueta who owns LMD, the company which runs the Castleton mall concession. At 25, Gueta is not much older than the youngsters he employs at his mall cart locations in both Indiana and Las Vegas. He spent two years after the army working on carts before deciding to get in on the management act and establishing LMD. Today, he spends most of his time traveling between his locations, making sure things are running smoothly - which can mean anything from dealing with a worker's visa problem to getting the refrigerator fixed in one of the town houses the company rents to house the employees. "Six or seven years ago, the American consumer didn't know anything about Dead Sea products at all," says Gueta. "Originally, the first businesses selling these products chose carts as the mode of sales - and it's stayed that way. When you're starting out and need to promote something, you need to be someplace where everybody sees it, can look, ask questions, and where you - the salesperson - can approach the shopper and give demonstrations." And demonstrations they give. Like all mall cart salespeople, Gueta's employees are intensively trained to demonstrate the products they sell in an entertaining, animated, showbiz manner. Before making his purchases, Mark got his hands soaked by Galia in a rejuvenating Dead Sea solution, and he received a free nail buffing. "Americans have become very interested in Dead Sea skin-care products... mainly because they're really very good, full of minerals and healthy for the skin, and Americans are very health conscious," Gueta says. While the banner name brand for Dead Sea products has always been Ahava, dozens of other manufacturers have emerged over the years, producing their own versions of Ahava products - some of high quality, some inferior, others generic. It was only a matter of time until some enterprising Israelis realized that if tourists were clamoring for anything with "Dead Sea" splashed across it, there was a potential market of Americans who never leave their hometown malls, who once they encounter a little bit of Israeli persuasion, will also learn they can't live without that skin lotion or facial mask. When someone like Gueta at LMD decides to open a cart business, he can't approach Ahava, because it's very selective in its international retail operation and prefers to operate from upscale stores instead of down-and-dirty mall carts. Therefore, the products each mall cart sells vary drastically from the top of the line to the diluted knockoff. And usually the salespeople don't even know the difference. "One of the first lessons we got before we started selling was to believe in the product, and that makes us more believable," says Eden, 23, from Shoham, who spent more than a year working at malls in Missouri. "You feel good when you know what you're talking about and can answer any questions thrown at you or deal with any situations. For me, it's a moral thing. Don't lie to the customer." That's also the lesson taught by the trainers at Seacret, one of the larger and more successful companies dealing in Dead Sea carts in the US. Ironically, the company, established in 2002 by three Israelis who had bonded during their army service, was originally positioned as a boutique Christmas season cart business selling toys and electronics. Seacret came on the scene just as mall specialty retail was getting started, explains Robert Meirovich, the company's Israeli-raised, Phoenix-based operations manager. "Our first kiosk was opened in Houston, Texas," he says, adding that within a few months, it had tentatively put its toes and fingers into the cosmetics field by adding popular nail buffer kits to its inventory as a way to expand beyond the Christmas trade. "The nail kits were very successful, but we needed to find something else that would provide us with the whole package. That's when we started selling the Dead Sea products." Within a year, Seacret had blossomed to 40 carts, and by 2005, Meirovich was in charge of 120 carts throughout the US, each of which he says generates between $15,000 and $30,000 in sales a month. In 2006, Seacret began reducing the retail aspect of its operation and began developing and manufacturing its own Dead Sea products, instead of buying from a wholesaler. Last year, Seacret products were sold in more than 450 locations in the US, and plans are on tap to raise that number to 600 by the end of the year. "We already had all this experience in retail, and we know we have great people who want to open their own businesses, so we decided to give them the product, and help them find a location," says Meirovich. Seacret retains a number of retail carts in hand-picked US malls, as well as 65 retail locations in Australia and New Zealand, to keep a pulse on the consumer's needs. "Before we bring a new product out, we do a thorough market testing and appraisal on it at our carts," he says. While the demonstration product industry in malls has exploded in recent years, Meirovich believes that Dead Sea products hold a unique niche in the market that has become cemented over the last five years. "People now know about Dead Sea products, and we usually don't have to stop customers. The products are always going to be here because the customer loves the products," he says. And if the customers don't stop? Well, that's why there are Israelis like Galia and Eden manning the booths. THE RECRUITMENT ads - appearing occasionally in newspapers like The Jerusalem Post, but more frequently on on-line job boards and chat lines - are a variation on a similar theme: "Looking for young people with American citizenship or US work visas for sales work in American malls. Excellent pay and conditions for suitable candidates." However, both Galia and Eden heard about the opportunities awaiting them from friends or relatives who had previously worked on carts. "I had cousins who were doing it every year, and I decided that's what I wanted to do to make some money after the army," said Eden who signed on to a cart company for the first time in 2006, dividing her time between Columbia and St. Louis, Missouri. She then returned last year for another stint in Virginia. "There's so many companies doing this, it's easy to find - actually being an American citizen, they track you down. They were surprised when I got in touch. They said, 'Usually we look for people like you; now you're coming to us.'" She preferred not to identify the company she worked for. As to why the companies take the trouble of recruiting Israeli kids, flying them to the US and setting them up in apartments, Seacret's Meirovich explains that it's a job only Israelis could do - in other words, a job an American kid would never agree to. The work day begins around 7 a.m. to get set up for the mall opening at 9:30, and the salespeople often don't get back home until after 10 p.m. "I think an Israeli just feels connected to the product. The Dead Sea is their home," says Meirovich. "Israelis know how to sell, and this kind of work requires a mentally and physically strong person. Many of them have recently finished the army and want to save money for college or trips. They have a strong motivation to sell." Companies usually have a recruitment representative in the Tel Aviv area who sets up introductory interviews for prospective employees, giving them the pitch, while at the same time checking if they're potentially suitable salespeople. "I met with this guy with a long pony tail and a laptop at the Azrieli Center, and he explained the whole deal to me and showed me a CD-ROM that had photographs of the carts, the condo and the workers sitting around having pizza. It looked great," says Galia. In her case, the condo was one of three two-floor town houses rented by the company in an attached building, part of a suburban planned project for young married couples and singles. Two of the apartments were for the female workers, and one for the male employees, she was told. The staff was supplied with two leased automobiles, which were used to shuttle them back and forth twice a day to the three malls where the company housed its carts - one five minutes from the town house, and the others a 30-minute journey. Each company has its own perks which it uses to entice employees: Some offer to pay the airfare to and from the US, or doesn't charge either rent or gas money, while others may deduct those expenses from the paychecks. What's standard across the board, though, is that the youngsters put in long days on the job, usually working 12-hour shifts to coincide with the open hours of the malls. In return, they receive commission on the products sold - ranging from 10 percent to 30% depending on the product and the price. Some companies may offer a guaranteed income instead of the commission, but most don't, following the philosophy of Gueta, who says, "We've never had an employee who would have needed to take the guarantee over the commission. They all make more than the minimum." The companies claim that the workers can earn on average of $1,500 to $3,000 a month in commission, with that amount potentially doubled during the busy pre-Christmas season. But those amounts are disputed by the kids who have done the job. "The companies aren't totally honest when they tell you how much you'll make - they present the top performance as the norm, so people often get disappointed when they don't make that level on a daily basis. They make it prettier than it is," says Eden, who nonetheless disclosed that she had saved several thousand dollars during her stints at the carts. With the monthly minimum wage hovering around NIS 3,800, that kind of bling becomes an enticing proposition to many kids hoping to save some money for college or travel. ANOTHER LURE is the idea of getting to live in the US unencumbered by parental or military supervision, often a first in their lives. But don't expect a spring break version of Girls Gone Wild - it's more like "girls don't clean." A typical workers' apartment resembles a revolving-door college dorm. The furniture is middle-period garage sale, clothes are strewn around, dishes are stacked in the sink, spare mattresses cover free floor space and the television is constantly on, tuned into Americana like Dr. Phil or Oprah. "That part of it was fun, after being in the army," says Tal, 24, from a kibbutz in the Beit She'an Valley, who worked at malls in Orlando, Florida, and Savannah, Georgia in 2006 and 2007. "There were four or five girls in a complex with a pool and a Jacuzzi." Likewise, Eden has fond recollections of the communal aspects of living: "When I first arrived, the people in charge made me feel very comfortable; they took us shopping, got us set up and made us feel at home. We were a smaller company, not a big operation, so it was more personal. Whoever was off on Friday would try to make a big Shabbat dinner, and we'd all have a late dinner together every week. And on Sundays nights, after we all slept all day, we'd have a weekly staff meeting with pizza." And despite assurances that girls live in one abode and boys in another, the best description for the accommodations at most apartments is "coed." But even with all those young, healthy hormonal beings in such close proximity, sex was usually the last thing on their minds - or at least a distant third, following work and sleep. "There's rarely any kind of romances developing among the staff - they work too much and they're too tired. Anyway, it would be like dating your brother," says Tal. Adds Galia of her Castleton experience, "Sometimes, it's hard to be with the same people all day and night, but we generally got along, and rooted for each other to do well. But there was no fooling around going on." Instead, energy was put into work. Each cart was manned by two salespeople at all times to approach more potential shoppers, and in the case of only one customer, to double team him. The work can be incredibly frustrating, the salespeople say, with rejection being a constant companion. However, one decent sale provides enough incentive and commission to keep the motivation level high. According to Eden, who had experiences in rural Missouri and a more urban area of Virginia, the more suburban or rural a mall location is, the better it is for business. "In the Midwest, you generally find simpler, warmer people. But they aren't gullible, you still have to work for your sales. In Virginia, it's closer to Washington DC, and they're used to being stopped by tons of salespeople, many of them other Israelis. So by the time they get to you, they're already yelling even though you're the nicest person in the world," she says. Often locations are chosen based on whether there's been any previous market penetration by a similar product, and sometimes because the entrepreneur has a friend or relative there who can help him make inroads. Whereas conventional wisdom might suggest selling Israeli products in Jewish-heavy urban areas like New York and Los Angeles would be advantageous, mall cart owners actually look for exactly the opposite - small, out-of-the-way markets that wouldn't know the difference between the Dead Sea and the Indian Ocean. "I have friends who say they want to go to LA or New York, but it's a fact that most companies open cart locations in the smallest places they can in the Midwest, Northwest or South," Eden says. However, Galia thinks that the fact the sales staff is Israeli ultimately helps rapport with the customers and boosts sales - to both shoppers who are oblivious to Israel and to those who have an affinity for the Jewish state. "You say you're from Israel, and I think it interested most people and made the product more authentic. For me, it was hard sometimes, because my parents are from the US, so I don't really have an accent, and I would have to convince them I was really Israeli," she laughs. Occasionally, the Israel connection would backfire, when a shopper would spout some anti-Israel sentiment. But all of the salespeople agreed that the overwhelming response to their national identity was positive. And when the shopper was an American Jew or Christian supporter of Israel, it often helped tip the scales when the critical push-comes-to-shove moment arrived. "I had customers start telling me about their trip to Israel, and come back on another visit and show me their photo album. People loved to talk about Israel, and on many occasions, it helped result in sales," says Galia. While sales were the No. 1 priority during the week, a close second was sleep. Schedules varied, but days off would generally be slotted in twice a week. According to most of the workers, it was a time to crash from exhaustion, and if there was time, to take care of errands like banking, laundry and the very occasional housecleaning. Even more infrequent was actually getting out and seeing the sights of the areas they were living in. Stationed in Orlando, Tal made sure she got out to see the attractions once or twice. "On our days off, we went to Disneyworld and Universal Studios. It was great being so close," she says. But Eden's American-born mother, Betsy, warns that potential salespeople shouldn't expect to don their sunglasses and sunscreen too often. "They work really hard, and on their days off they sleep and do errands, just like real working people," she says. "I was incredibly frustrated that Eden was a half hour away from Washington DC, one of my favorite cities, and she only got there twice. She just had no energy to go sightseeing." According to Eden, it wasn't lack of ambition, but simple logistics that prevented her and her colleagues from getting out more. "They tell you that you have a car, but it's really to just get to and from work," she says. "If you want to use the car on your days off, you need to drive everyone else to work. Some of the malls are 30-40 minutes away, so you end up driving for a couple hours just to have use of a car for a few hours. It's easier to just stay home and watch the soaps." BEYOND ALL other traits that the young Israeli salespeople bring to the table, the quality that clinches their value - beyond their willingness to work long hours and live like Bluto in Animal House - is their personality. Some may call it endearing, others obnoxious, but it's a known fact that Israelis - even those raised by American-born parents - aren't afraid to make their voice heard, a trait that has created profits for their employers and almost an equal number of headaches. According to the salespeople, they all went through training with their various companies in their first days in the US which taught them how to be aggressive in their sales pitch, but not to cross acceptable social boundaries. Sometimes those boundaries were set by the mall management. "In some malls that were perceived as somewhat higher class, we weren't allowed to say, 'Can I ask you a question?' and we had to try some other strategy, like 'Hi, try some lotion,'" says Galia. "Occasionally mall management would approach us and tell us to not be so aggressive, and once, they actually forced one of the salespeople to leave the mall for asking customers questions." Like Castleton's general practitioner Mark, many shoppers don't know what to make of these pushy, accented foreigners stopping them in the aisles. "I think Americans are kind of taken aback by being stopped in the middle of the mall by a stranger," says Tal. "They're not used to that, because they honor the whole issue of personal space more than Israelis do." According to Seacret's Meirovich, the clash of cultures and the relationship between the vendors and the mall management is of utmost importance, demanding constant attention. "We have occasionally run into problems - the vendors get overaggressive, too enthusiastic about making the sale. We explained to the malls that it's better to have an enthusiastic employee than someone who's sleeping, and malls began to understand that demonstrations are good for the malls," he says. According to salesperson Eden, while the staff is well aware of the guidelines set forth by a particular mall, they tend to ignore them whenever possible. "Our bosses usually told us not to change our tactics, just don't let the mall management see us," she says. The aggressive tactics can often produce a negative effect, as this testimony from a shopper at the Westfield Mall in San Francisco reveals. "I see them at the mall every time, doing their salesman talk... They are real pests who bug shoppers. I try to avoid them when I walk by and as they call, 'Miss, miss!!' The products are good products but the prices are ridiculously inflated and the salespeople over quote the prices, then 'give freebies when you order more,' i.e they make you get more products and actually pay for them all... So while the products work well... beware of all the sales talk!" Beyond the element of aggressiveness is also the issue of playing with the prices of products. The salespeople admit that there is a range of prices they're free to negotiate within, but insist that there's not any price gouging going on. "We have a price list that's available for the customers to see, and then we have another lower price that only we know," explains Eden. "We're free to make deals, but we're told never to go down below that low price and to always fight to get that higher price. But if we think we're going to miss a sale, we can entice them by either going down in price or throwing something in. I don't think it's really taking advantage of the customer. It's not a scam, but you do end up making a big profit, even if it's at the lower price." If the carts don't get into trouble for unfair pricing or for accosting customers, there's a third issue that has cropped up among certain employers. Some companies, in addition to hiring Israelis with dual American/Israeli citizenship or Israelis with work visas, have also taken on Israelis who are not authorized to work. This has resulted in periodic raids by US customs officials looking for illegal aliens, and occasional headlines about Israelis working in the US illegally. According to Seacret's Meirovich and LMD's Gueta, that practice has been almost totally phased out and only the most disreputable companies still engage in it. Before she flew to the US, Eden verified that she was working for a legal company and that she wouldn't find herself in any potentially shady situations. "A lot of companies don't do things by the book - even if they hire kids with American citizenship, they won't pay taxes, or they won't get the proper visas for the non-American Israelis working," she says. "I made sure the company I went with was above board - they paid taxes and you need to give them a social security number." Her mother Betsy says she had little input into Eden's preparations as she searched for work, but insisted that there be assurances from the company that the business was conducted within the law. "I tried to stay out of the way and trusted my daughter completely. The only question was which company to work for. One of my nieces had worked with a company that wasn't totally legal because it employed Israelis without work visas. So when Eden found a company that only employed American citizens, I felt more confident that she was with the right company, even though with a bigger company she potentially would have made more money," she says. According to Seacret's Meirovich, the shady image of mall carts is becoming a thing of the past. The mall cart industry is no longer seen as a fly-by-night "shouk" business without accountability, it's gotten respectable. "We have a different way of approach, the design of our carts is attractive, the workers wear aprons with logos," he says. "It's not like a few years ago, when the customer wasn't sure what he was getting. Now, it's much more official - you can even go on-line now for customer service. The image has changed." Still, horror stories abound, of kids who went to work on the carts and wound up broke, or stranded in Biloxi or Chattanooga and abandoned by their company. But those experiences are possibly urban legends, perhaps invented by nervous Jewish mothers attempting to instill fear in their children in an effort to dissuade them for leaving home into the great unknown. None of the subjects interviewed for this story were aware of any colleagues who were deported, ended up in jail, returned penniless or began to regularly use the term "dude." They all emphasized, though, that it's not a job suitable for anyone with time on their hands and an empty wallet. "I think the young adult has to be very motivated," says Betsy. "It's a lot of hard work, but it can be a very positive experience. It gives them independence and teaches them how to manage money, spend it responsibly, and even save it." "It's not for everyone," adds Tal, who now works in child care in the Tel Aviv area. "The work is exhausting in a psychological sense in addition to a physical one." "It's tough to do it over a long period of time," chimes in Eden. "When you know what to expect financially, and you don't meet those expectations, it's frustrating. Once you get through the Christmas season and get into the winter and spring, you have to remember those good sales days to keep going." All of the youngsters who talked about their experiences working on the carts say it was worthwhile, both in a financial sense and also as a life experience. "It would have taken me five years in Israel to make the money I made there in one year," says Tal, as one of the children she takes care of screams in the background. "Some people just want to go for a month or two, but that's unrealistic. It's a process that takes time." "I know my kids always thought of America as New York, LA and Disneyworld," says Betsy. "These companies are really successful in the small towns that most Israelis never heard of. They get to meet the 'other' Americans, to see real life and see that it's not all fun and games." Eden, herself, back from her second stint in two years, is now looking for a "normal" job with her boyfriend. "We've had enough of the carts. Every year you finish and you say you're not going back. And then Christmas season rolls around again and all that money is enticing. I don't know... we'll see, maybe I'll do it again, one more time."