Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Worst Thing You can Be in Israel? A "Frier"

For the past year (or more), I've been a regular subscriber to Makor Rishon, which is the paper of record in the Religious Zionist community. (the other paper that I read, called B'sheva, is published by the Arutz Sheva people, and distributed for free - if you get to the makolet early enough on Friday morning to get a copy.) I like reading the paper because while I don't understand every word, it's a good way for me to stay current on what's going on in the Israeli world (not the American bubble that I try not to live in), and there's always something relevant for me to know about in the world of education in which I work. The kids also like the kids magazine and run for it on Friday when they get home from school.
The price for the weekly paper, including magazines? After an initial trial period, 150 shekel a month. Sounded a little pricey, but that's what the guy on the phone said, so I agreed. That was over a year ago.
Last month, we invited a local Israeli family over for lunch. Great people, great conversation - a wonderful time all-around. They noticed that we get Mekor Rishon, and commented on how they should really resubscribe. (apparently, they canceled their subscription hoping to get a better price.) How much did I pay? the husband asked me. I told him. He almost fell out of his chair, giving me that pitiful look you give someone whose gotten ripped off and doesn't even know it. Nobody pays that much, he tells me. Really? I do, said me, feeling ever more stupid by the second. This is Israel, he says. Everything is negotiable.
Sadly, I had to agree with him. While the American in me is happy to pay the asking price, because you usually don't negotiate to buy groceries, here everything is subject to discussion and debate. Moreover, it's not rude. It's expected - part of the fabric of Israeli life. And if you don't negotiate and just pay the asking price? Your loss.
Don't worry. I'll check it out and let you know, he tells me, and we drop the topic.
Sure enough, he comes over to me later on in the week. I was right. 70 shekel a month - some kind of program they've got.
I really feel like a moron. I've been paying 150 shekel for something I could have gotten for 70. I'm cheesed off, probably more at myself for not asking for a deal than for actually paying full price. So I call them.
Lo and behold, they've never heard of anyone paying such a low price. Ever. It doesn't exist. "What's the name of your friend?" I heard that a few times. We can give you 100 shekel a month without the magazines. I was adamant. Seventy a month. With the magazines. After being told that there was no way in the world that they could offer me such a low price, I had had enough.
"Fine," I told them. Please cancel my subscription. I had to send an email to cancel in writing, which I did on the spot.
Surprised I was not when my cellphone rang last week. Why did you cancel? How can we get you back? I calmly explained what I was willing to pay, and the salesman began to argue with me. While trying to haggle, he apparently got another call and said to me, "Can you hold on a minute?" (Remember, he was the one who had called me.) I hung up - and didn't answer the phone when he called back some time later.
This morning, he called again. I was calm and patient. "Listen: Seventy shekel a month. That's what I'm willing to pay. Any more, and we can end the call right now."
Pause. Let me call you back.
A few minutes later he calls me and says, "Well, your friend must be on the yearly plan - 960 shekel for the year for 13 months. Comes to about 73 shekel per month. What do you say?"
It wasn't the 70 that I wanted, but it was less than half what I was paying beforehand. I agreed.
But tell me, I wondered, Why was it that I had to cancel my subscription before you miraculously "found" this plan?
He laughed. It's like yeshiva, he said. Some questions are better than the answer.
Yes, I agreed. But many yeshiva bochrim leave religion for that very reason.
In the end, I got the price that I wanted. But I still feel foolish for having paid double that for over a year. In Israeli terms, I was a "Frier" - a sucker - someone who could have and should have done better, but got taken advantage of due to my naivete, simplicity, willingness to comply - my American nature. I wonder: would I have been better off not knowing that I was overpaying? Sure, now I'm saving money. But I also feel stupid and angry at the paper for having taken advantage of me.
Many Americans find this to be one of the most frustrating aspects of Israeli society. I'd tend to agree.