J'lem: Landmark Hamashbir dept. store gets new location

Two years after the cornerstonelaying ceremony, Hamashbir opens in Zion Square; final investment in store comes to NIS 125m.

Hamashbir (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
“I never thought that I would live to see this day,” said Dvora Yitzhaki, chairwoman of the board of the Hamashbir Lazarchan, the national department store chain.
Two years ago, Yitzhaki participated in the cornerstonelaying ceremony for a new Hamashbir flagship building in Jerusalem’s Zion Square, at which time she and others descended into the bowels of the earth: six or seven floors below ground level to lay the foundations.
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It was all so different from Tuesday’s red-carpet entry to the completed seven-story building that is the largest and most modern of Israel’s department stores, and is “guarded” by a bronzed lion that sits on a ledge at firstfloor level overlooking the entrance to the store.
For Yitzhaki, who is a veteran of the first-ever Hamashbir store – a Histadrut labor federation enterprise that opened on Jaffa Road in 1947 across the road from the current store – Tuesday’s opening represented both the closing of a circle and a long moment of nostalgia.
Originally budgeted at around NIS 75 million for construction, the final investment in the store came to NIS 125m.
British Israel, which owns the building, paid out NIS 95m., and Hamashbir, which has taken a 24-year lease on the building, paid NIS 30m.
The interior design is the work of Umdasch, one of the leading European companies in the field of commercial center and store design.
Yitzhaki, who joined Hamashbir in 1958 as the secretary to its founder Raphael Marinoff (the official name of the company was changed to “The New Hamashbir Lazarchan” in 2003), brought with her a photograph taken on Purim when she was 16.
The photograph still bore the imprint of Photo Migdal Or, which was next door to the new building, adjacent to the original Steimatzky bookstore, which was one of several structures torn down to make way for the brand new Hamashbir.
The original Hamashbir store, which had previously been the Hefzibah Shoe Store, was closed following the opening of a larger facility on premises that now house Bank Leumi.
In 1970, Hamashbir moved away from Zion Square to nearby King George Street, at the opposite end of what is now the Ben Yehuda Mall. In the interim, it opened other stores in other parts of the country.
Yitzhaki recalled that on David Ben-Gurion’s orders, the Hamashbir store in Tel Aviv-Jaffa was utilized for sending care packages to Jews in Russia.
Over the years Hamashbir expanded, and until about a decade or so ago, carried mainly Israeli-made products.
“We used to do a lot to promote and encourage blue and white production,” Yitzhaki told The Jerusalem Post. “Of course today, it’s different and so much of what we carry is imported.”
Yitzhaki, who is now part of management, was previously on the other side of the divide, serving as head of the workers’ union, in which capacity she also led a strike.
Negligence and mismanagement placed Hamashbir on the brink of closure in the early years of the new millennium.
Hundreds, if not thousands of people would have been out of work had this happened.
Shavit brought in Russian- Israeli physicist and investor Ya’acov Gitarts as a partner, and the group, which since 2007 has been publicly traded on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, has reorganized and expanded in several directions.
In addition to the Hamashbir department stores which now number 38, the group has acquired New-Pharm Drugstores Ltd., Office Depot, Club 365, Cibus catering company and Aviation Links, Ltd. Plans are also afoot to set up a nationwide food chain.
The decision to build the new Hamashbir was made four years ago, Hamashbir CEO Assaf Ben-Dov told reporters a scant four hours before the new store was open for business. When representatives of the group came to check out the area, he said, it looked like an excavation site. The whole street had been dug up to create the infrastructure for the Jerusalem light-rail system.
Making the light rail operational had been delayed not by months, but years, and at that time, no one could tell when it would be up and running.
Nonetheless Shavit and his people in partnership with British Israel – which specializes in building malls, shopping centers and department stores – decided to take the risk. All the movers and shakers in the business world told them they were crazy.
They went ahead with their plans anyway, and while many stores on both sides of Jaffa Road went out of business, they continued building.
It was important for them strategically to have their flagship store in the nation’s capital, just like Harrod’s is in London, KaDeWe in Berlin and Galeries Lafayette in Paris.
Ben-Dov also said he was confident that the store would contribute to domestic tourism in that it would bring people from as far north as Kiryat Shmona, and as far south as Eilat to Jerusalem.
The store will also cater to foreign tourists – not only in terms of merchandise or the dairy coffee shop that will open in a month’s time on the top floor – but also provide an information service that will help tourists know more about the city and feel at home.
Pointing to the broad sidewalks, the light-rail train passing by, and noting the revamped neighboring stores which are all contributing to the resurgence of a main artery that almost died, Ben- Dov said: “Look, Europe, in the middle of Jerusalem.”
Meanwhile, Hamashbir is not resting on its laurels.
By the middle of next year it will open three more stores, said Ben- Dov.
Aside from that, it will place greater emphasis on building up its customer base by getting more people to join the 365 Club, which entitles them to huge discounts on numerous items.
Customer loyalty is the essence of business strategy, Yael Meir, Hamshbir’s deputy head of marketing, told reporters.
Currently, there are some 500,000 members of the 365 Club, but Meir is confident that this figure can be increased by at least 25 percent within a year.
Up until the opening of the new building, Hamashbir’s most elegant stores were arguably those in Dizengoff Center and in the Ramat Aviv Mall in Tel Aviv – but both could be upstaged by the Jerusalem store, which has more elegance, better merchandise, a greater selection, and the kind of enticing display that enables customers to see it all.