Store wars

Tel Aviv minimarts are waging a campaign to encourage the public to boycott the mega-supermarkets.

Kobi Bremer 521 (photo credit: ARIEL ZILBER)
Kobi Bremer 521
(photo credit: ARIEL ZILBER)
Kobi Bremer is the owner of a quaint little supermarket on Sheinkin Street in the heart of Tel Aviv. Burly, cherubic, eloquent, he carves out a figure of an Israeli everyman, and it shows. Customers warmly greet him at the counter of his store, passersby on the street wave hello. His friendly manner and charismatic persona make him the natural choice to head an ad-hoc union of more than 100 small supermarkets and minimarts around Tel Aviv that have banded together to wage a legal fight against municipalities that they claim are intent on driving them out of business.
The roots of this struggle date back four years, when Bremer and other minimart owners began receiving fines from the municipality for working late into the evening, a violation of a city ordinance that requires stores and shops to close after 9 p.m. on weekdays and all day Saturday.
“We began receiving fines at seven o’clock in the evening from municipality inspectors, which was strange since there are stores that operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Bremer says. “I was told by the municipality inspectors that city hall is intent on shutting down small businesses and allowing only the large supermarket chains to operate uninterrupted.”
The minimart owners claim they are being muscled out by the large supermarket chains like AM:PM and Tiv Ta’am, whose stores are open round the clock. Bremer and his union say these franchises are able to violate the city ordinance with impunity because their deep pockets enable them to pay the fines handed out by the city. On the other hand, the small store owners who are forced to keep their shops open beyond the legal operating hours in order to compete with the all-night chains find themselves weighed down by the heavy fines. So much so that 30 of them have gone out of business.
“The inspectors told me that this was the policy that was determined by those at the top and that there may be personal connections between the wealthy franchisees and the politicians,” Bremer says. “The [municipality’s] goal was to make life difficult for us and shut us down. I couldn’t even put up a sign [above the entrance to the store] because the municipality would fine me, so I decided to go to war. Inspectors kept coming and handing out fines, so that’s what led me to begin this campaign. I also heard from other convenience store and small supermarket owners who were also experiencing this, and we decided to organize.”
Benefiting from the reverberations of last summer’s social tent protests in Tel Aviv, Bremer’s union launched a grassroots, Facebook-based campaign that has amassed hundreds of supporters, including well-known intellectuals and public figures from the arts. Consumers are urged to buy from the small minimarts and convenience stores and to boycott the large chains.
“We don’t have employees who will work on Shabbat,” Bremer says. “We work every day, from morning to night. We want a day of rest so that we can spend time with our families and children, whom we don’t see the entire week. So what we are saying is that either the law is enforced equally or it should be changed altogether.”
The campaign’s signature banner, which can be found online as well as on bulletin boards and makeshift fences surrounding construction sites around Tel Aviv, features the images of minimart owners juxtaposed with those of supermarket chain executives, with the respective resumés and economic background detailed underneath their photographs to emphasize the disparity in wealth between the two sides. Bremer’s image is featured next to that of Dudi Weissman, the owner of supermarket chains AM:PM, Mega and Alon.
Weissman is described in the placards as a man “whose fortune is valued at NIS 1 billion, [while] employees at his chains earn NIS 23 per hour.” The minimart chain owners are described in a more sympathetic light.
“From my standpoint, [AM:PM] a company that is... stealing my customers because it is keeping its stores open during hours which I’m not allowed to open my store,” says Bremer. “But AM:PM doesn’t care because it is a wealthy corporation. And it can afford to make a mockery of the law.”
Despite several attempts by Metro to contact AM:PM by phone and email, the company declined to comment for this article.
IN MARCH, the minimarket owners’ lawsuit against the Tel Aviv municipality and the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry was thrown out by the Tel Aviv District Court on the grounds that the minimarts were seeking to “shut down the city on Shabbat.” The minimart owners are now planning to take their struggle to the Supreme Court.
Corrine Sauer, a New York University-trained economist who heads the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies, says that the original ordinance, which was designed to keep residential areas quiet by requiring businesses to close their doors in the evening, is choking off competition, much to the benefit of the large chains that have essentially become functioning monopolies.
“There is no reason why some stores should be allowed to be open after 9 and why others would not have the same privileges,” she says. “I believe that the free market itself would work it out. I think that the question of which stores should remain open should be determined by consumer demand and not by the courts or by legislation. Everybody should be allowed to keep their businesses open as much as they want,” she says. “There’s no reason for the city to plan which stores can stay open,” she continues. “What the law does is make it much more difficult for other chains to come into the market. It’s a barrier to another person’s entering the market. More competition would lead to lower prices, better services, a real market that works, but what the city is doing is blocking people from entering the market, which increases concentration.”
Rafram Hadad, one of the activists in the campaign, says that the battle is as much cultural as it is economic.
“From our standpoint, this is a struggle for small businesses and their right to exist and to be a part of the social fabric of every city,” he says. “We are not just talking about supermarkets but also small bookstores, mom-and-pop appliance stores, which are also in the same boat [as the neighborhood markets].”
Hadad says that society has been overtaken by a trend of hyper-consumerism that has enriched large corporations at the expense of the small- and medium-sized businesses.
“The large chains and franchises are not anchored in anything that is humane,” he says. “We think a person’s responsibility is to pour money into his community so that he can get money in return. When we give money to the large chains and franchises, we don’t pour in money to our communities. We are in effect taking money out of our communities, thereby weakening them. So this is the important thing.”
One of Bremer’s most frequent customers makes his preference clear, though he doesn’t deny that the chains offer a convenience that the smaller minimarts cannot.
“I like these mom-and-pop grocery stores. It’s more pleasant here, more personal,” he says. “Most of the time, the products are cheaper [than in the chains]. I buy from AM:PM because I have no choice. It’s the only thing open at night and on Shabbat,” he says.
“But if AM:PM wasn’t open at night, he would manage, and he would come to my shop and buy during the daytime hours,” Bremer says. “I have no problem with AM:PM being open during legal hours, but they have an advantage by staying open past then and on Shabbat.”
The Tel Aviv municipality responded to the charges, saying: “The law allows business to remain open until 9 p.m. and not 5 p.m. as claimed [by Bremer]. Furthermore, the municipality does grant permission for businesses to remain open from 9 p.m. to midnight. There are many areas within Tel Aviv in which exceptions are granted for stores to stay open in later hours.”
The policy of enforcing the ordinance is equal for all, and there is no special treatment or preferential treatment in this regard, the municipality says. “The large chains do receive heavy fines. The free market, such as it is, conducts itself in a certain manner, and the municipality has no say in this regard. There is no doubt that the small minimarts have tough competition to deal with from new businesses that have moved in. Despite the proliferation of brandname outlets in shopping malls, the streets of the city are blossoming with a wide variety of stores and boutiques,” the municipality asserts.