Shuls Can Learn from Retail Stores

June 17, 2012

The Shul I attended during my childhood had a greeter (see this New York Times article on how nuanced of a job upper class doormen have serving as a greeter on down). This job wasn’t taken lightly at all. In fact, it was filled by none other than a noted author and radio personality. Week after week, he would sit by the front door, and last row in Shul, to make certain that a tourist, newcomer, visitor, or unaffiliated Jew was guided to their seat, and also had a Siddur, Chumash, and even a Shabbos Meal! As someone who travels for many weeks throughout North America each year, I can attest that this type of warmth is something that is not exhibited in many Shuls—let alone outreach Shuls (although I must give Aish LA credit for having a greeter).

What prompted me to remember this childhood memory, is that just the other day, Professor William Kolbrenner, author of Open Minded Torah, asked, Is Torah a ‘product;’ are rabbis ‘salesman?’ This question got me thinking. I don’t believe that a Rabbi is a ‘salesman’ and that his Shul is his ‘used car lot.’ That said, I do think that there are things, such as having a greeter, that a Shul can have, and by extension, bring people closer to Torah, increase their  membership, make Minyan more of a warm and friendly place, and so on and so forth. As such, Shuls need not look any further than yes—of all places—retail stores such as a Apple on down, as to how to how to subtly engage the newcomer or unaffiliated into the services that much more. After all, from the pleasant music to the choice of floor tiles, the environment in a retail store is almost never arbitrary. Indeed, we find that Halacha already helps us by mandating that the Bimah be in the middle of the sanctuary. In so doing, this makes the place in which the Torah is read, a very central and inclusive spot in the overall layout of a Shul.

Apple retail stores are king at creating an “ownership experience” and more brand loyalty with customers. At Apple retail stores, the laptop screens are all adjusted precisely to the same exact 70 degree angle—not just for uniformity and aesthetics, but, according to Forbes, to get you to adjust the screen—touch the computer and get engaged with it. This is done intentionally with the hopes that this will create an “ownership experience” and more brand loyalty with customers. Studies have shown that people are more likely to walk into a store and buy a product(s) if they simply touch them.

In light of the above, if Shuls were to simply display their Siddurim and Chumashim in a creative manner that will be respectable to the Sefer but still subtly says, “touch me,” or “open me,” we may just find that from the start, there may be that many more people who would be that much more comfortable with simply having these books in their hands. Truth be told, I think it doesn’t even take a creative display of these books—what it does take is to display them in a place that any “new user” could easily find them. I can’t tell you how many Shuls I’ve walked into and had to find the Siddurim all the way in the front right section or in the middle. That is certainly not the most ideal place to find a Siddur—to say the least!

All in all, I’d love to see the greeter become just as trendy as a Kiddush Club! Alas, I am compelled to believe that I may be asking for too much. That said, if we simply looked at the layout of our Shuls—or in some cases reevaluated them—we may find that while still staying within the time honored framework of Halacha, we could better engage people and create an experience that will feel more comfortable and allow a person who has made that leap, and walked into a Shul, to move in a positive direction.

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23 Responses to “Shuls Can Learn from Retail Stores”

  1. Neil Harris on June 17th, 2012 9:32 pm

    Great post. I didn’t see Prof Korbrinner’s post (but I will check it out).
    I think we should allow our shuls to engage people as you suggested.

    The Apple store is an excellent model. A few years ago I compared it and other stores as Kiruv models:

  2. Neil Harris on June 17th, 2012 9:32 pm

    I hope shul rabbis will read this.

  3. Rabbi Michael Green on June 17th, 2012 9:46 pm

    Thanks Neil for the comments! IMY”H many Rabbonim and Boards will see these posts and use them l’tov!

  4. harryer than them all on June 25th, 2012 4:56 am

    I think the mistake you are making is that shuls are not selling a product. They are a platform or medium for a message. In another Forbes article it spoke how dominance on the internet is being fought not over the product but over the platform. Google, Facebook,are fighting over what platform or medium to get people to buy products. Apple also sees many of their products as a way to continuously sell through app stores, itunes, etc. What shuls should be doing is offering a unique platform for people to continuously buy product rather than a one time purchase

  5. Neil Harris on June 25th, 2012 6:29 am

    You are correct. I can think of two different examples of those type of shuls which are unique platforms. One type is a shul that is built around the Rav/Rebbe. People join that kind of a shul because of the personality of its leader and those he attracts.
    The second type of shul is one that is more client-based, such as an Agudath Israel or a “BT” type shul that has a specific demographic being targeted.

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