Tel Aviv grocery store battles: Leave the market to its own devices

The grocery store battle that erupted this month in Tel Aviv has given new meaning to the term “market forces.” Photo: Wikimedia

JERUSALEM, June 29, 2013 — According to current Tel Aviv by-laws, all shops must be closed on Saturday. As anyone who has been to Tel Aviv on the Sabbath can see, many stores – primarily kiosks that sell junk food and cigarettes – have been violating this law for years, and neither the municipality nor the public has minded. On the contrary, consumers have rightly considered the ability to buy beer and chips on the way to the beach on Saturday a great convenience.

When two supermarket chains, Tiv Ta’am and AM:PM, began to crop up all over the city and stay open seven days a week, the situation was even better. Not only shoppers were pleased; the municipality was happy as well. This is because it began to collect nice sums of money in fines from these establishments.

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A simple financial calculation on the part of the supermarkets led them to the conclusion that the fines for violating the Sabbath laws were a small price to pay. Their Shabbat profits made it worth their while.

The municipality, whose coffers were filling very nicely every month from this “arrangement” of fining the supermarkets for violating the law, had no intention of changing the status quo. Nor did residents of Tel Aviv, who continued to enjoy being able to buy groceries whenever they felt like it.

Everyone was content, except for the owners of the small neighborhood grocery stores. These owners have been incensed by the phenomenon of richer businesses being able to afford – in overhead, manpower, and municipal fines — to stay open on Shabbat. Resentful at what they view is their unfair disadvantage, they banded together and petitioned the High Court of Justice to force the large supermarkets to shut down on Shabbat.

City council members from the Left and religious parties both supported this move, the former on socialist grounds, and the latter based on the sanctity of the Sabbath. There is nothing like strange bedfellows to make for interesting drama.

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And drama, indeed, has ensued.

On Tuesday, the court ruled in favor of the petitioners. Well, for the most part, at any rate. According to the judgment, the Tel Aviv municipality can’t have it both ways. Either it has to change the law, or it has to enforce the existing one, not merely by collecting fines.

This makes sense from a legal standpoint. There’s no point in having laws on the books if they are not enforced. But there is also no point in having this particular law on the books at all. Nothing kills an economy like curbing competition, which is really at the root of this whole brouhaha.

There is nothing new about small shops losing business to large chains. Nor is it a bad thing, other than for the individuals who suddenly find themselves having to figure out creative ways of competing. Those who do not manage to do so sometimes have to close up shop.

This is not the fault of big business, however. It is due to consumer demand. We vote with our feet when we shop, frequenting the places that best serve our interests. The supermarket chains in Tel Aviv meet a need. And their high prices indicate that people are willing to spend more to have it met.

One way in which the small groceries have been able to stay afloat is by having lower prices, knowing their customers by name and allowing them to put their purchases on a tab. This, too, is a necessary niche – one for which there is still a need in Tel Aviv as elsewhere in the country.

Keeping the market open, literally and figuratively, is the key to a flourishing society. It is this that is at stake in Tel Aviv right now, not the gripes of the grocers or the holiness of the Sabbath.

Reining it in would be tantamount to putting the “city that never sleeps” into an induced coma.The grocery store battle that erupted this month in Tel Aviv has given new meaning to the term “market forces.”


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Ruthie Blum

 Ruthie Blum is a pull-no-punches, conservative, Israeli-American columnist for Israel Hayom,  and the author of “To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.’”

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