Germany's antiquated shopping restrictions defy common sense

March 01, 2006|By STEVE CHAPMAN

BERLIN -- It's a Sunday afternoon, and the Potsdamer Platz shopping arcade looks like any American shopping mall on a busy weekend. It's thronged with parents pushing baby strollers, retirees eating ice cream cones and teenagers sneaking kisses.

But there is one major difference. The mall has plenty of stores to draw shoppers - Foot Locker, H&M, Eddie Bauer, a discount supermarket and more. But today, absolutely no one is going inside. The reason: The stores are closed. By law, they have to be.

Any American merchant would be writhing in agony at the sight of hordes of patrons who are not allowed to buy. But in Germany, this abnormal spectacle is entirely normal. Sunday may not be a day of worship in this largely secular society, but because of government decree, it's not a day of commerce, either.

The only exceptions in the mall are eating establishments. Oh, and there is one retail store open - a small shop stocked entirely with Berlin souvenirs. Under Germany's quirky regulations, it may operate on Sundays because it caters to tourists.

Many Germans defend the closing law as a way of limiting the pernicious reach of consumerism. But don't think locals are immune to the need to shop just because it's Sunday.

In fact, just a mile away, at the Friedrichstrasse train station, customers are lined up 12 deep at the registers buying the groceries denied them at Potsdamer Platz. It turns out the law allows shops to operate in train stations seven days a week because they allegedly accommodate the needs of travelers.

Organized labor likes the law because it grants workers a day of rest. Only some workers, however, get the break. An army of establishments is allowed to do business on Sundays - including restaurants, museums, movie theaters and gas stations.

At the state level, additional peculiarities arise: Video stores are required to close in Baden-Wurttemberg, but not in neighboring Rheinland-Pfalz, so some residents of Mannheim go to next-door Ludwigshafen to rent their DVDs. Car washes may stay open in some places but not others.

The benefits of outlawing such capitalist acts between consenting adults, to borrow a phrase from the libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick, are not obvious. It creates real inconveniences for anyone who suddenly needs something - and there is no escaping the fact that 14 percent of all unforeseen, urgent needs arise on Sundays.

You may think it would be a relief not to squander your Sunday on shopping. But any relief is counteracted by the increased stress on other days. On Saturdays, when stores must close by 8 p.m., groceries are clogged with Germans making sure they have enough food to sustain life until Monday morning. Instead of being allowed to spread their weekend errands out over two days, they have to cram them all into one.

This is also a weird policy for a country chronically plagued by two ailments - weak consumer spending and high unemployment.

Letting stores accommodate buyers on Sunday - or after 8 p.m. other days - certainly couldn't reduce consumption, and it might increase it.

After all, if you have a sudden urge to share a bottle of wine or fly a kite on Sunday afternoon, you probably won't go out and buy it on Monday morning. Some consumer needs are fleeting, and the lost sales are lost forever.

Employees who would rather have Sundays off gain from the status quo. But a lot of Germans don't have to worry about having to work on Sundays because they don't have the privilege of working at all.

Asks Jeff Gedmin, director of the Aspen Institute Berlin, "How can it be that in 2006, with 19 percent unemployment in Berlin, you can't buy a bottle of aspirin on Saturday night?" Liberalizing the law would boost the demand for workers at a time when jobs are pitifully scarce.

In the end, the law exists not because so many Germans don't want to shop on Sundays but because so many of them do. In a modern economy, there's something wrong with a policy that bars shoppers and stores from doing business when they find it mutually agreeable. Maybe it's time to give that approach a rest.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Mondays and Wednesdays in The Sun. His e-mail is schapman@tribune.com.

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