By Ben Schwartz, Matzav.com
Black Friday, in American culture, is the great shopping holiday, the morning after the Thanksgiving holiday. Black Friday starts the Holiday shopping season, and is so named because it begins the season that gets stores out of the red and into the black, hoping for a profitable year. Chain retailers create an event-like atmosphere, opening in the wee hours of the morning, and advertising drastic markdowns to pull customers in. Customers also make a holiday out of it, some bringing tents and camping out in parking lots until the doors open.
While Black Friday is associated mainly with nationwide chains and expensive electronics, this year it was a pivotal moment for another kind of retail store, one that is closer to home for the frum community: Your local Judaica store.
Retail business is feast or famine. Rarely can a store of any kind survive on the trickle of day to day customers. Stores rely on the frantic rush of the busy seasons, when customers pour in looking to spend money on what they need, and hopefully a few extras. But the busy season is limited; when you have three weeks to get back into the black, a few days of bad weather can keep customers home and a store in the red.
There are three big seasons for Judaica stores, all are before yamim tovim. The three times are the Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur/Succos rush, the Chanukah rush, and the Pesach rush. Each has its own little quirks. Beyond esrogim and Seder plates, stores sell many more novels before Pesach and Succos, which have long yom tov afternoons, than they do before Chanuka; not surprisingly they sell more gift items during the Chanuka season.
This year, as always, Judaica companies are targeting the Chanuka season for a heavy marketing push. Artscroll, Feldheim, and Israel Book Shop Publications, the three largest frum book distributors, advertise major sales during this season. All three published and mailed new catalogs, featuring a slew of shiny new books. Artscroll’s much hyped biography of Rabbi Moshe Sherer, and Israel Book Shop’s new Estee Kafra cookbook, Cooking With Color are two of the new releases that suggest that major publishers save their best releases for the busy season. Israel Book Shop also chose the Chanuka season to introduce the new “magalog” format for their yearly catalog. The new Kosherlamp, with a more durable material and larger light surface is now being sold in Judaica stores.
The stores, meanwhile, scramble to receive and display the new inventory together with the menorahs and oil, while at the same time servicing crowds of customers. In this season, a busy day is strenuous and draining, a quiet day is frightening. While the ads and catalogs bring customers into the stores, it can be hard for stores to meet the advertised specials after paying for shipping, and putting together their own seasonal ads.
Like national retailers do on Black Friday, Judaica stores advertise loss leaders to get customers inside. The biography of Rabbi Sherer, with a list price of $29, was advertised in the window of one store at $20. Some stores feel pressure to match any advertised special, lest they be perceived as overpriced. Others don’t worry.
“I’m not overpriced,” one Flatbush manager says. “I always give twenty percent off the list price. If there’s a store that wants to pull people in, that’s fine, but if a customer is in my store, I’m already doing better than that, because he’s already here.”
This year, Chanuka is relatively early compared to the American shopping season. By the time Black Friday came, many stores were already fully switched from the pre-Succos or early winter quiet season mode, to the fifteen-kinds-of-disposable-menorah, fifty-new-book mode.
A roundup of what to look for in your local Judaica store, once you’ve bought your menorah: The new Kosherlamp, The biography of Rabbi Sherer, Estee Kafra’s Cooking With Color, Hanoch Teller, after a long hiatus, has released a book, Too Beautiful. There’s a new book from Feldheim called Normal a collection of stories from Yated author Reva Rubinstein. From Judaica Press comes the Dessert Time cookbook, and the re-release of Mitzvah Giraffe, a classic book, now with a read along CD-ROM and interactive computer program. Popular teen novelist Chani Altein has a book called Pen of the Soul. The second volume of A Legacy of Leaders, biographies of Sefardic gedolim is now available. From a long time associate of Hatzalah, Moshe Rotberg, comes the seminal Emergencies in Halachah, a comprehensive book on, you guessed it, emergencies in halachah. Teen author Bracha Goykadosh has a new novel called Shadows on the Moon. And since there’s nobody better than Mordechai Schmutter, it’s entirely fitting that his new book, A Clever Title Goes Here, should be released in the Chanuka season.
There’s enough new and noteworthy releases and developments at your local Judaica store to keep customers coming, and to help gauge, like Black Friday, whether the recession is over. Hopefully, the weather will hold up, the stores will be bustling, and you will find just what you and your family need. But if not, hey, Pesach is sooner than you think.