ModernTribe started as an online store, then experimented with pop-up locations before opening a brick-and-mortar store in an unlikely location for a Judaica shop, Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn district.
Now owner Jennie Rivlin Roberts is testing the oldest of old-school outlets for ModernTribe: The Temple.
At the start of November, ModernTribe began operating a self-serve store inside the Midtown synagogue’s coffee shop, which itself occupies the space that used to be the congregational gift shop.
The partnership is an attempt to solve the riddle of the synagogue gift shop, which traditionally provides members with a place to buy such necessities as mezuzot, simcha gifts and Chanukah candles but can frustrate potential customers with irregular hours. Many congregations have closed their shops.
“Like many gift shops around the country in synagogues, we found that ours was being less and less productive,” Temple President Jonathan Amsler said. A lack of volunteers led to irregular hours, and sales were low when the shop was open.
To make the space just inside the synagogue entrance more welcoming, “we decided to get out of the gift business and into the coffee business,” Amsler said. Any time except Shabbat, people can help themselves at a single-serve coffee machine and use the WiFi.
In the conversion, The Temple left space along the walls for a small gift shop to provide congregants’ necessities, but Amsler said ModernTribe was the only Judaica store that showed any interest in the opportunity.
“ModernTribe was a godsend in some sense,” Amsler said, explaining that Rivlin Roberts provided all the answers The Temple needed.
The shop requires no staffing. All the merchandise is on open shelves. Customers browse, take what they want and check themselves out on an intuitive iPad-based credit card system, which helps Rivlin Roberts monitor inventory. The Temple offered to install locked glass doors on the shelves to prevent theft, but that setup would have required someone to be available to unlock the cabinets for any sales, undermining the self-service model.
Rivlin Roberts said that because it’s a synagogue, she thinks the honor system has a good chance to work. The presence of a security guard a few steps away at the synagogue doors should help, as should the fact that The Temple gets 10 percent of all sales.
“I was very flattered that The Temple reached out to ModernTribe,” even though she had initial skepticism about the idea, Rivlin Roberts said. “They thought ModernTribe had cachet and people would be more excited.”
So she invested about $500 in the iPad and related equipment and in signage for the satellite shop, which she stocked with about $3,500 worth of merchandise.
She’s hopeful that the Temple partnership will prove profitable itself and spark additional sales online or at her main store through the marketing value of having the ModernTribe name and products in a prominent place. But the big payoff could come from replicating the model.
If the self-serve store works — if theft isn’t a problem and if technical glitches such as the power cord being disconnected are solved — Rivlin Roberts said she’d love to have 25 to 50 similar locations in synagogues and other Jewish facilities that want to provide the service of Judaica sales but haven’t been able to make gift shops work.
She said that expanded retail footprint also would enable ModernTribe to increase its product development, which now consists largely of T-shirts.
“It’s open, and Chanukah is a good time to test it,” Rivlin Roberts said. “Then we’ll go from there.”