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Secret Shopping in Jerusalem

During winter vacation, I spent some time touring Israel. While there, I paid a visit to Arbel Computers, a Jerusalem retail operation, and discovered how Israeli technology stacks up to our own. This story then appeared as a Secret Shopper installment in the Feb. 1, 1999 issue of Computer Retail Week.

(Editor's Note -- The Secret Shopper was an anonymous member of CRW's editorial staff who routinely visited computer stores to rate their service staffs and selections. To maintain consistency, guest contributors always wrote store reviews as family members of the Secret Shopper. I wrote this piece from the POV of the Shopper's college-age daughter. Doesn't it make sense now?

Spending winter vacation overseas has always been a dream of mine, and this year, I got up the nerve, and the cash, to go for it. The balmy weather and host of historical sites in Israel provided a welcome break from my college classes, but old habits die hard. I couldn't help but nose around a few stores to see how the computer stores in Jerusalem stack up to those on our side of the world. Dad would be proud.

It started while I was watching TV in my hotel room -- an advertisement for a popular Israeli pharmacy chain touted a price slash on Windows 98. (My Hebrew isn't perfect, but when you see a picture of the Win98 box, a big X through the number 699, and a boldly displayed 299, that spells "discount" in any language.

Not being a math major, it took me a few minutes to convert New Israeli Shekels to dollars. I was feverishly doing the equation in my head, based on the exchange rate quoted by the black-market money changer doing business out of the newspaper kiosk in the center of town. (It's refreshing not to be the only undercover person on the street.)

Basically, Windows 98 had been selling for around $150 or so, while the new price was around $75. Pretty comparable to U.S. prices, I thought. It was interesting that Win98 was being sold at a pharmacy chain, but I soon discovered that "Super-Pharm" stores carry enough household goods to almost be considered a consumer-electronics-style operation.

As I wandered around the older sections of Jerusalem, I noticed the influx of software stores appearing in the most incongruous places. Surrounded by gift and book stores, "Torah Scholar Software" stands out like, well, like a software store in a 2,000-year-old neighborhood. The stores offered mostly bible-study and religious-oriented titles, but multilingual word processors and popular utility programs also abounded.

As I strolled around the malls and restaurants in the city's center, I was struck by the cosmopolitan nature of Jerusalem. There seems to be a delicate balance between the old and the new, between tradition and innovation. Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut vie with antique shops, synagogues and art galleries. Tourists and natives alike wile away the hours window shopping at the various boutiques while school groups tour ancient sites made famous millenia ago. Even in December, flowers were blooming and the weather was temperate enough to make me forget what a New York winter feels like.

Just a few blocks down Jaffa Road from Jerusalem's bustling, open-air Machane Yehuda vegetable market is the K'lal office complex. The building has a large indoor atrium featuring a music store, several book shops, cafes and an office-supply store. I was just strolling to the information booth when I spotted Arbel Computers. The storefront was split in half, with one side featuring racks of books and software titles, and the other opening into a sparsely furnished showroom, with some desks and demo stations.

The store was relatively empty, so a sales associate was quickly on hand. I explained that I wanted to browse around and compare the prices and performance levels to those available in the States. Even though a sale didn't seem likely, he was more than happy to oblige.

Arbel, as it turned out, was a configure-to-order store, where customers sat down with associates to hash out exactly what they wanted. The associate explained that their lowest-end systems are based on 300MHz Celerons, and start at 4,500 NIS (around $1,080) with monitor.

I asked about Pentium II 450MHz processors, and whether they were available. The associate looked at me funny and said, "We have them, but they start at 8,000 NIS." The price is a little steep for the average Israeli, but it adds up to around $2,000, quite average for a high-performance system in the States.

The company offers CD-ROM drives in speeds up to 36x, but its modems are still running at 33.6kbps. I asked the associate why V.90 hadn't taken off in Israel, and he lowered his voice to answer. "Bezek (Israel's oft-ridiculed version of Ma Bell) can't do 56K," he said, frowning. Two of Israel's leading ISPs are equipped to handle the faster speed, he explained, but the phone company is still operating at 33.6.

I surmised that phone-based home networks and multi-PC homes are not quite bursting on Israel's horizon, but the correlation of technology and price points was impressive.

At this point, some real customers came in, and the associate excused himself to usher them over to a sales desk. I took the opportunity to venture next door to the software store.

A display rack of books covered one wall, with the remaining floor and wall space devoted to software titles. I recognized some of the books as belonging to the "For Busy People" series, but the Hebrew was beyond me. Manuals for Windows 98, Office, and Java applications featured English logos on their covers, and the pictures on the software boxes are the same, so I could tell Israel was running parallel to us in terms of consumer software.

Customers, on the other hand, were a different story. I've never had to gingerly brush past a machine gun-toting soldier (staring dreamily at Lara Croft) on my way to the information desk. But he was cute, M-16 notwithstanding, and courteous as well. American guys, take note.

Computer games seem to be very big in Israel, as all the demo stations in the CTO section had games running, and most of the software shelves were dominated by entertainment titles. Grim Fandango (220 NIS - around $53), Tomb Raider III (209 NIS - about $50) and Jane's Israeli Air Force combat simulator (177 NIS - around $42) were prominently displayed.

For 120 NIS, or around $30, you could go home with You Think You're So Smart, the Israeli version of the popular You Don't Know Jack trivia game. Translated into Hebrew, the box has a bright sticker on it, indicating a popular Israeli game show host did the voice-over for the game.

Not to be completely overrun by American products, the store also featured Israel-produced educational titles for pre-schoolers, in addition to the latest Putt-Putt and Reader Rabbit SKUs. Bamba, a diaper-clad cartoon character, leads kids through reading exercises in a series of titles that sell for 149 NIS, or around $35.

The woman in charge of the software section was cold and unfriendly at best, downright mean at worst. I asked her to price a few titles, but she brushed me off, telling me to read the boxes and stop bothering her. A few minutes later, she brusquely asked me to leave the store, as she had to step out for a few minutes and no one would be available to help, anyway. She was the only sour point of the visit, but she cost Arbel a star and a half.

Having been ejected from the software store, I returned to the CTO department, where my sales associate was once again available to chat with me.

He said the store offers printers from all major vendors, including Canon, Hewlett-Packard and Epson, and peripherals like Artec scanners and Proview monitors. A Canon BJC 4300, for example, cost 1,000 NIS (around $240) while an HP model was available for 695 NIS (around $165). My associate said he preferred Canon models over the others, because ink cartridges are far more affordable. A Canon ink refill costs 50 NIS (around $12), while an HP cartridge runs close to 200 NIS ($48). I liked that he wasn't pushing high-priced models just to make a few more shekels. He seemed to care about the customer's long-term expenses.

The associate said Arbel configures and ships systems within a week of order placement. The hardware comes from Israeli suppliers, and he was quick to mention that Arbel has a separate office for repairs and upgrades should I need any such service.

My overall experience at Arbel Computers was pleasant and educational, with an associate who knew in advance I probably wouldn't buy anything, but found the time to answer my questions candidly nonetheless. If I ever go back to Israel, I'll be sure to drop him a line. The experience just shows that no store, no matter how big or small or near or far, is safe from the inqiring mind of the Secret Shopper.

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