The Druze businessman behind the biggest kids’ store in the Mideast

Jess Kanan and his brother own My Baby, a mega-store in the Israeli village of Yarka. Jewish and Arab parents drive for hours to find bargains.

My Baby
My Baby is set up as an “airport” arranged in “terminals,” reflecting Kanan’s wish to make it “a meeting place for the whole world.”

An ambitious Druze businessman in northern Israel is planning to conquer the world, one stroller at a time.

Well, not just strollers. Jassan (“Jess”) Kanan’s mammoth My Baby store sells everything parents need for babies and kids, from 350 suppliers, at low cost. Even the many imported items sell for about 35 percent less than Israelis ordinarily pay.

Price and selection are the primary reasons for the steady line of weekend shoppers heading to My Baby, in the otherwise obscure West Galilee village of Yarka – where Kanan grew up and still resides with his wife, Huda, and their three young bilingual children.

“Israelis, they love shopping,” Kanan tells ISRAEL21c. “Every Shabbat they come to shop.” The store gets up to 2,000 weekday customers and closer to 5,000 on weekends.

Yet there is more to My Baby than 118,403 square feet of retail space. Kanan designed his seven-day-a-week business as an “Ikea for kids,” he says, taking a lesson from the Swedish chain that’s thriving in Israel.

The giant store is set up as a bright “airport” arranged in “terminals” (maternity items are in Terminal 1, car seats in Terminal 5), reflecting Kanan’s wish to make it a major hub for families, “a meeting place for the whole world.” He’ll be adding an “arrivals and departures” board listing weekly bargains.

My Baby’s rooftop pay-per-play entertainment center and restaurant (Terminal 16, according to the store’s glossy new English-language brochure) has a train ride, trampoline, go-carts, ball pools, zip line and birthday party space. Next year, Kanan wants to add a unique kid-friendly branch of the popular Israeli chain Café Greg. He’s also toying with the idea of a mini-museum and a chocolate-making workshop.

Graduate of the university of life

Kanan, 39, says he got his retailing education in “the university of life.”

The successful but camera-shy business owner served in the Golani Brigade of the Israel Defense Forces for three years. “Every day I learn something new, and I learn quickly,” he says. “I always get three opinions, and a little luck helps too.”

He and his younger brother, Wissam, have long worked together in retail. Yarka was known in the 1980s as the place to score cheap Levis at a factory that made them there, and the jeans traffic boosted other local businesses.

“All the Israelis were coming to Yarka, and I was 22 and I saw we needed to open more shops here,” Kanan recalls. The brothers established a children’s store in 1996 and steadily expanded. My Baby now sees annual sales of more than NIS 100 million, or about $25 million.

They employ 140 Druze, Christian, Muslim and Jewish workers, including several Kanan siblings and cousins. “My customer base is 70 percent Jewish and 30% Arab,” he relates. “It’s important for me that whoever comes in the door is honored. I don’t care who they are; they will get treated well. My workers and customers come first.”

As a minority within a minority, Kanan is used to getting along with Israelis of different religions and ethnicities. Politics do not interest him. “I am very loyal to my country,” he says, citing his faith and respect for parents and family as his strongest values.

Sons Eran, nine, and Omri, eight, and baby daughter Jessica like to visit Dad in the store. “My kids speak Arabic and Hebrew, and sometimes people are confused [as to] what we are.”

Bringing My Baby abroad

Mingling with other toy and children’s supply retailers at exhibitions in Europe gave Kanan the idea to broaden his horizons outside the Middle East, where My Baby is the largest store of its kind.

“In 2012, I hope to expand to Turkey, and then maybe to Canada. I am 15 years in the business, and I have connections through my suppliers in Europe, China — all over the world. You tell me the product, I will tell you where it’s made.”

He’s never been in the United States but manufacturer representatives come to visit him in Israel and customers tell him My Baby resembles a kid-oriented Walmart.

His favorite watchwords: “service with a smile,” “open space,” “low price is the winning dice” and “retail is detail.”

In an interview with The Marker, Kanan explained that he can sell at reduced prices by purchasing “enough goods to stock a chain.” In addition, he owns the land the store sits on, Yarka taxes are low and he does not employ managers.

Next year, he hopes to open an Internet retail site and also enlarge the store another 215,000 square feet. Though he’s not averse to change, he prefers to expand on proven concepts. “If it’s not broken, why fix it?” he says.

About Abigail Klein Leichman

Abigail Klein Leichman is a writer and associate editor at ISRAEL21c. Prior to moving to Israel in 2007, she was a specialty writer and copy editor at a daily newspaper in New Jersey and has freelanced for a variety of newspapers and periodicals since 1984.