Recession prods Germany to let shoppers shop more

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

November 04, 1993|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Berlin Bureau

BERLIN -- In Germany it is virtually impossible to shop 'til you drop, unless one counts being rammed to your knees by a grocery cart in the frantic moments before closing time.

Otherwise, store hours don't allow enough time for fatigue to set in. Since 1956, in fact, the German rule for shopping on weeknights, Sundays and after 2 p.m. Saturdays has been pretty simple.

You can't.

It's national law, and there are few exceptions -- one "long Saturday" per month with a few extra shopping hours, two extra hours each Thursday evening and a few additional "long Saturdays" leading up to Christmas. The result in this consumer's land of plenty is a plague of long lines and squeezed schedules on most shopping days.

But all this may be about to change.

After nearly 40 years of stubborn opposition by traditionalists and retail workers' unions, the recession has made longer shopping hours look a lot more attractive. The theory is that more hours would generate more sales and more jobs, especially in eastern Germany, where millions of people have been forced out of work by the strains of reunification.

With that in mind, German legislators are drawing up proposals to loosen the law, although one approach gaining popularity would only allow flexible hours for family-run businesses.

Government leaders, such as Economics Minister Guenter Rexrodt, back broader measures. Mr. Rexrodt says that liberalization in one form or another is inevitable, and could come as early as the current legislative session.

At the latest, he says, change will come after next year's national elections, and he characterizes the old law's chances for survival with a German, saying, "It is as dead as the Leipzig central cemetery."

In plenty of other countries, the merchants themselves would be leading the charge, just as they've done in the United States when fighting Sunday "blue laws."

Not here.

"We do not believe that there will be an increase in sales," says Steffen Kern, spokesman for the German Retail Association. And even if there were extra sales, he says, the revenues would be eaten up by additional labor costs. Germany's labor laws require up to 55 percent higher pay for nighttime work.

Anyway, says Mr. Kern, who obviously has never been run down in the grocery aisles at high noon on a Saturday, "The current store-hour law is an optimal compromise between consumer, employee and entrepreneur."

Tell that to someone like Gabriela Francke and you're liable to have a shopping cart imprinted on your forehead. For Ms. Francke, spokeswoman for the Consumer Center of Berlin, change can't come soon enough.

"For a working couple now, there is almost no time to do the weekly grocery shopping," she says. "There is only Saturday morning and Thursday night. And for bigger items like television and refrigerators, there really is no time at all."

Making matters worse is that in some cities stores traditionally close earlier than the law requires. Many of Berlin's merchants, for example, lock their doors a half-hour ahead of the legal deadlines.

As if this weren't enough added inconvenience, shoppers are further infuriated by clock-watching merchants -- butchers and produce vendors seem especially notorious -- who begin clearing merchandise off their shelves and counters 15 minutes ahead of closing time.

For now, frustrated consumers must content themselves with an odd German habit born under this system -- weekend window shopping. On any Saturday or Sunday afternoon, droves of Germans forsake their parks and playgrounds to stroll quietly past darkened storefronts. They gaze longingly through plate glass as if eyeing the solemn treasures of a museum, stopping even to check out the long-winded bank window displays on home loans.

At least they can still take solace in some activities where the clock never seems to stop -- drinking beer at some Berlin night spots until the sun peeps through the haze, or badgering waiters on past midnight at cozy restaurants.

But, until the law changes, those who don't pick up that sack of flour by 2 p.m. Saturday can forget about baking any Kuchen until Monday.

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