The days of Macy’s and defunct department stores like Gimbels dominating retail are long gone.
Online Jewish gift shops are filling the cyber market these days. From A (Amazon) to Z (Zingerman’s), it’s a far cry from the days when you had to go to a synagogue gift shop if you wanted something Jewish.
Now there are new problems: With so many to choose from, how do you know which is best? What if there’s a problem with the order? And, of course, what if you decide you don’t like what you ordered or find something better?
Chances are, that due to the nature of what’s become a consumer-friendly business, you’ll wind up satisfied.
“We’re a family company who prides themselves on having excellent customer service,” said Amy Kreitzer, who runs moderntribe.com. “I work really hard to find items they can’t get anywhere else. I have a business background and a Jewish food blog, What Jew Want to Eat? Because of that, I became proficient in social media.
“Shopping online is a lot easier because you can have a larger selection than in person and don’t have to leave your home. The way people shop today, it makes sense for us to have Judaica. We have some items no one else has — like handmade bagel earrings made of clay. We make some of our own items and work with smaller and larger artisans on some others.”
Being unique will set you apart from the rest. At the same time, it narrows the marketplace.
That’s what they’re discovering at judaicashop.net, the website for the National Museum of American Jewish History store. It takes in 20 percent of the store’s business.
“Our online store’s extremely successful,” said store manager Kristen Kreider, who owned brick-and-mortar stores selling Judaica in the late 1980s. “Without it, we’d be taking a hit. But variety has disappeared over the years. Twenty years ago, it was a lot easier to find Judaica, but a lot of the artists creating ceremonial things have stopped or moved into other things.
“We’re known for having a great selection of books, with a number of pieces handmade. Plus, people like to support us over Amazon or Bloomingdale’s because we’re nonprofit. So for a $200 menorah where you’d normally pay sales tax, here there’s no sales tax, museum members save 10 percent and every penny generated goes back into the museum.”
Wendy Silver-Gordon of traditionsjewishgifts.com can relate.
“There are probably hundreds, if not thousands, of online sites selling Judaica,” she said. “A majority of them are probably people working out of old offices or spare bedrooms. Only a handful of us operate out of a warehouse and have a real store. Eventually, the consumer finds out. You get calls from people who need a tallis that weekend. They ordered it from some store but never got it. Tradition saves the day.”
In time, going online might even save the day for synagogue gift shops, which are going the way of the dinosaur between plummeting synagogue memberships and the proliferation of online options.
But the harsh reality is that shoppers generally are either looking for the best deal — or something that no one else has available.
“One reason we’re so successful is we have so many different items,” said Silver-Gordon, who started the site in 2001. “At this point, we have over 800 mezuzahs and different menorahs. It’s hard to find that type of assortment anywhere. We do have some vendors create exclusive items for us, but not an entire line. And we make our own wedding glass keepsake items, because it’s nice to have something just a little bit different.”
That’s especially true since the holidays are approaching.
“Definitely, this is our busiest time,” Kreitzer said. “We have tons of new stuff from emoji dreidels to a menorah in brass or chrome that’s a monument to the modern bagel. I was writing the blog, with a new recipe every week, looking for a creative outlet. Last year, I found moderntribe.com was for sale, the perfect complement.”
There’s probably a similar story behind every Jewish website, something else you won’t find on Amazon.
“My mother-in-law started with a retail store, my husband opened this location in the mall and I opened the site,” Silver-Gordon said. “I’d come from a Jewish artist’s perspective because my father and I were in business together making Judaica when I met my future mother-in-law.
“The industry has consolidated. A lot of stores have closed over the years. But we rely on word-of-mouth and previous customer experience.
“That gives us the ability to offer all price points. The store’s in a good location, but online offers us a lot more growth.”