Inside the new JLife online store
By Ilan Preskovsky
It seems that no matter how our currency is doing on any given day or what effect an inane comment or idiotic action of a given politician has on our economy, South Africans have, for years, been facing a relentless rise in the cost of living. Every visit to your favourite retailer seems to come with a bump in price on even the most basic necessities. Indeed, it’s strange, but luxury items seem to be less affected by haywire markets than those crucial day-to-day essentials. Even as I write this, I’ve little doubt that the price of bread just went up by 30 cents for no apparent reason.
As difficult as it is to live as an average South African in this climate, it’s even more so for those of us trying to live any sort of Jewish life. With everyday products becoming exponentially unaffordable, what does that say about kosher products that, because of the harsh realities of the supply and demand of less than 50 000 South African Jews, can be as much as three times the price of their non-kosher alternatives? And that’s just food. The incredibly high cost of living in areas within walking distance of a shul can put a strain on even the deepest pockets, while the quite essential and holy task that must be borne by the community of providing our children with a Jewish education often results in unsustainable school fees. And that’s before you even factor in other expenses like transport, medical aid, and other forms of insurance.
Under such a climate, it was perhaps inevitable that something would have to be done, but that takes away absolutely nothing from those who put their money where their mouths are and have stepped forward to confront this crisis head on. Enter JLife, formerly Affordable Jewish Life, a not-for-profit initiative that aims to tackle the four areas that are most affecting our community financially: food and other basic household products, education, housing, and various forms of long and short term insurance, especially medical aid.
Paul Bacher, the entrepreneur who spearheaded the Affordable Jewish Life initiative, makes no bones about it: “Our research (and other organisations) shows that more than 50% of our community do not come out. In addition to this, there are a further 15% who do not have the resources to withstand a financial shock (such as an unexpected R20 000 expense). Because such an enormous amount of the community is in dire straits, the house is on fire and so we’re doing what we can to help people in need.” Initiatives in these four crucial areas are all developing at different speeds, to be sure, but JLife is all set to tackle the high price of food and everyday household items with the imminent launch of their online store. A very successful pilot programme has been running for around two months, delivering products to around 100 families each week.
Working off the precept of “creating a quick win for the community with the highest chance of success against the lowest risk”, the online shop offers the highest quality products at the most affordable prices by getting food and other products as close to the source as possible. This means, for example, that you can get A-grade fruit and vegetables at Woolworths-level in terms of quality, but significantly cheaper. Products are marked up by a small margin which is used to cover the operating costs of the store. Although the stated aim is not to make profits, but rather to help cushion the community from ridiculous food price inflation, any profit that is made will be ploughed back into JLife.
Like everything else about JLife, it is run almost entirely by volunteers, save for one paid employee, who started in November 2017 and who ensures that the initiative runs as smoothly and as professionally as possible. Bacher in particular credits Gilly Levy, Ryan Richard, as well as the broader team, for “volunteering hundreds, if not thousands of hours of their own, free time on the food project.” That it’s run almost entirely by volunteers for the sake of the community and not for profit does, however, not take away from the top-class service that the JLife store offers. As Bacher puts it: “JLife will offer a comfortable and secure shopping experience with superb, predictable, and world-class service. It’s all about the customer experience.”
To ensure this, the JLife store is being rolled out in stages. As of this writing, it is still in the pilot stage, working with one hundred families and using all the feedback from this more self-contained “focus group” to see what needs to be improved and to iron out any of the challenges currently facing them (staffing issues, delivering to working people on a Thursday, which is currently when all shipments go out) so that when it does finally launch to the general Jewish population in Johannesburg, it will run as smoothly and as professionally as possible. In the meantime, plans are also under way to increase their product range by approaching more and more suppliers, but, of course, the more people who use the store, the more capital will be available to bring in more and more products. For example, plans are already under way to bring in tissues and toilet paper from an excellent source, at excellent prices.
They have also received tremendous support from the community in the endeavour. In the development of the site and in marketing themselves, for example, they’ve had the generous help of Sam Michael, a strategy and marketing consultant, in making sure that the JLife brand reflects the “aspirational” nature of the project. They’ve also been gifted with a highly advanced delivery-routing system from David Slotow, the CEO of Trackmatic – at no charge – to ensure that all packages are delivered promptly and with minimum fuss.
Paul Bacher is quick to stress, however, that the point of the store is not to damage established retailers in any way. Indeed, initially the plan was to only provide the service for those who could prove that they were in dire financial need, but because the plan is to make the store “aspirational” and something by which those in financial dire straits might use to empower themselves, asking people to potentially embarrass themselves by sharing their bank statements or other personal information would run entirely counter to that spirit. Dignity is paramount. He admits that, by its very nature, some competition with retailers is unavoidable, but it’s a worthwhile risk for something that can help tens of thousands of struggling Jews. Furthermore, in order to offer very competitive prices and meet JLife’s core objectives, scale in terms of customer numbers is needed, and there are now no pre-requisites to signing up with JLife.
Who knows – there may be a way to collaborate with the Jewish retail community once they are fully operational, so as to reduce the likelihood of negative impact.
Strategically, JLife has decided to initially go with a 100% online presence, including the JLife Food Store, which can be found at: www.jlife.co.za
It’s an incredible initiative, but it’s really only the beginning for JLife. They have a number of other programmes in development to go hand-in-hand with the online store, such as a programme that offers budgeting counselling to couples who need it. This, of course, will only add to the efficacy of the budget-priced online store. Other initiatives include: financial training for families, innovative and practical nutritional advice, low-cost holidays, mobile phone package optimisation, medical insurance optimisation, and medical costs reduction.
The obvious challenge is manpower – given that all the volunteers have busy careers and with many involved in other community initiatives at the same time. So, if you care about the community and have talent and experience that could be used in the initiative via time or product – please contact Paul on firstname.lastname@example.org
This is only the beginning, though. Stay tuned for a whole lot more to come from this wonderful initiative.