Local Judaica Stores Take New Approach to Selling

With the availability of just about anything you want at your fingertips, local Judaica stores aren’t letting the internet stop them. 

Gone are the days of searching near and far for the perfect Passover seder plate or those to-die-for embroidered challah covers.
Who needs the hassle with the advent of Amazon’s (and competitors’) two-day shipping?
However, the ease that is now commonplace for customers is making local Judaica stores rethink their business models.
With the availability of just about anything you want at your fingertips, local businesses aren’t letting the internet stop them. 
Instead, they’re embracing the change.
Jack and Dina Levin, owners of Rosenberg Judaica and Wine, recently took their store completely online while also limiting the products they sell.
The Rosenberg family had stores in Jenkintown and Northeast Philadelphia that have since closed, leaving only the Bala Cynwyd iteration left, which the Levins bought from them two years ago.
They’re still selling everyday items — tzitzit, Shabbos candles, kippot — “but in terms of having kiddush cups and the jewelry, challah boards, gift items, things like that, we are staying away from just because people tend to buy that online,” Dina Levin said.
Instead, the online store focuses on kosher wine, which can be purchased at shopkosherwine.com.
Dina Levin recognizes the convenience of big stores like Target for customers, too — she often shops there herself.
“They’ll run into Target just to do a basic shopping trip and they’ll see it there and buy it there as opposed to coming to our store, which especially if it’s raining or cold, it’s like an extra step for them,” she said. 
“And now even the large department stores — [like] Bed Bath & Beyond — have things that people like,” she continued. “Even a department store like Saks here in the area was selling menorahs. Target had a lot of the same stuff that we had, and since they were in larger quantities, they were getting better prices.”
Granted, compared to these stores, Rosenberg’s items were more specific. While Target may have more general items like decorative Chanukah plates for kids, Rosenberg had different-sized glass jars to put on a menorah, as well as the oils and the wicks that people requested.
“But at the same time, it’s nothing that they couldn’t find not only on Amazon, but a lot of the distributors have their own website that you can order from,” Dina Levin noted. “The only thing that’s different is if they came to us, they get to see the item and touch it and feel it.” 
The Mitzvah Mavens in Ardmore is also benefiting from face-to-face interactions.
Toni Caroto, the owner, has been in business for about seven years. The store functions more like a customized office or showroom.
“You don’t really come in and purchase from the store, but what we do is anybody that’s having a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, they’ll come in and they’ll design their logo and buy customized items from us,” she said. 
The Mitzvah Mavens makes a lot of T-shirts, water bottles, tote bags — your typical B’nai Mitzvah swag, which Caroto calls “printed party items” — for about 10 to 15 parties a month during the busy season.
“Most of the people that want to order this type of item really like to have a face-to-face meeting,” she added. “So our business was never where you just go [online], order something and then you’re done.”
Companies like CustomInk are more of a competitor than sites like Amazon, but Caroto said they’re doing well because people still enjoy the personal interaction.
“People like the physical interaction, being able to see products, know who’s working on their orders,” she said.
But gift shops within synagogues are still stressing the importance to support local stores, like the shop inside Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park.
Marlene Glass has run the shop for five years, which is open Tuesdays and Sundays during religious school.
“We have seen an increase and a decrease [in customers]. We are a Reform congregation, and in the years I’ve been there, there has been a real accelerated activity in Jewish ornamentation for Bar and Bat Mitzvahs,” Glass said. “Of course, the internet doesn’t help us at all. But we like to point out that once you pay the delivery [fee], you’re better off buying in our shop.”
KI always gives a kiddush cup and Shabbat candlesticks to Bar and Bat Mitzvah kids, “so a lot of young families don’t buy them because they know that their kids are going to get them,” she said.
But Glass stressed the importance for Judaica items. 
 “When you have a kiddush cup that maybe you used at your Bat Mitzvah or candlesticks that you used at your wedding or a tallit that your father used when he was Bar Mitzvahed, those become very, very important within the family to start the conversation of, ‘What do I need this for?’ Well, you may not need it, but you will want it because …  and then the conversation goes on from there,” she said.
Aside from the wine, Rosenberg Judaica and Wine is going strong with another seller: books.
“We had thousands of books for sale in our store that — we’ve been there for two years — nobody has ever looked at,” Dina Levin said.
“And in the past two months, we sold literally about 100 times more books online than we sold in the store,” Jack Levin said.
A lot of the time, customers would browse through their store and say they could find a better price online, which the Levins both disliked.
But now online, a book they didn’t think anyone would ever want to buy — an Asian kosher cookbook — sold on Amazon last week.
“I understand what people are doing because I was doing the exact same thing,” Dina Levin admitted. 
Although the book side of the business is doing well and the website just launched, Jack Levin emphasized that it’s important to recognize the people behind the businesses.
“The No. 1 thing is that there are faces behind the [site],” he said.
“We can’t sit there and be angry,” Dina Levin added, “because we understand that right now, we’re not the mom-and-pop store anymore. We’re doing everything online now.” 
Contact: rkurland@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0737


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