Germans resist 7-day shopping

Sundays: American-style consumerism threatens to breach traditional Germanic restrictions on business hours, but not without a fight from workers.

June 07, 2000|By Daniel Rubin | Daniel Rubin,SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS

BERLIN - Germany may be the economic engine of Europe, but on Sundays it stops.

Stores must shutter by 4 p.m. Saturday, and customers approaching checkout minutes before closing often are turned away with a shrug or a scowl.

But global market forces are beginning to disturb Germany's traditional day of rest. With Wal-Mart already offering American-style shopping, and the Internet providing 24-hour access to the world's goods, such rigid store regulations "are like a castle from the old century," says Wolfgang Branoner, a Berlin city counselor.

Branoner is one of two local legislators pushing to liberalize Germany's shop-closing rules - the strictest in the European Union. To vie with other world-class cities, Berlin must be more aggressive, he says. "We want to make more money."

Last month, for the first time in its 93-year history, the city's Kaufhaus des Westens - the continent's largest department store, whose offerings include Baccarat bowls, Zino Davidoff humidors and 1,300 varieties of cheese - opened on a Sunday. More than 1,000 stores in Berlin did business as well.

Tourism rules

It was one of four Sunday shopping-day exceptions permitted by the local government to accommodate influxes of tourists. This time it was a surgeons' convention. On Oct. 1, it will be the World Championship of Hairdressers.

Branoner and other business advocates in the capital won the four Sunday store openings on the argument that tourism is key to the city's economic success. The No. 1 complaint of visitors - especially Westerners - is that they don't have enough opportunity to shop, he says.

The Sunday opening broke a tradition enshrined in the country's constitution and supported by unions and churches, which have decried the changes as an "orgy of consumerism."

Many see the liberalized store openings as a wave rolling from the country's East, where unemployment is higher and change is more familiar - one that might reach the larger Western cities but will not play in conservative towns.

"German people seem to value their time more than money," says Yoshi Noro, an Internet designer and recent Manhattan transplant. He had trouble believing that eating lasagna at Kaufhaus des Westens on Sunday required sidestepping hundreds of protesters.

In 1956, the country's churches, unions and retailers formed a coalition to rewrite the laws and eliminate the loopholes that allowed evening hours and Sunday openings. People felt "consumerism was not the god that everyone should be worshiping," says Michael Fichter, a political scientist at Berlin's Free University. "There should be time off to be with their families."

The debate resurfaces regularly, and four years ago the national government allowed stores to extend evening hours from 6:30 to 8. But it shortened Saturday openings by two hours.

A recent study by the Forsa Institute, a German polling group, found that 50 percent of Germans object to Sunday openings.

"The German society doesn't want it," says Olaf Stelljes, 38, a master plumber from Bremen. But the sight of those Sunday crowds milling around Kaufhaus des Westens impressed Stelljes. "The people seem to like it," he says.

Many German merchants like it, too. Turkish shop owners, who are mostly Muslim and do not honor Sunday as a rest day, generally have ignored the law, as have people of the formerly East German state of Saxony.

Fighting unemployment

The economic minister of Saxony saw Sunday openings as a way to combat unemployment, which continues to grow in the East. Nationwide, unemployment fell this spring to less than 10 percent for the first time since 1995, but 6,000 more people in the East joined the jobless rolls. Stores opened on Sundays in Saxony last summer until a shop clerk in the city of Leipzig won a court ruling to stop the practice.

"What you really have here is two different cultures meeting head-on," says Fichter, an American-born expert on German labor unions. "One culture that says, `Sunday is sacred and there are enough other times to go shopping.' And on the other hand you have a very rapidly changing lifestyle of people, especially in the big city."

Those cultures met outside Kaufhaus des Westens when shoppers had to pass hundreds of pickets, including 5-year-old Tayfun Yucel, who wore a sign around his neck that said, "Why are you taking my mom away even on Sunday?" His mother, 26-year-old Sevda Yucel, sells dishes at the store. She says her contract prevents the managers from making her work Sundays, but she fears that the guarantee will end.

Fichter says workers see threats to job security and income from the "Americanization" of their economy. They fear for their high standard of living and generous social-welfare system.

A family day

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.