Monday, February 27, 2006

No shopping, please, we're German

Steve Chapman
Chicago Tribune

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. There's a reason for that: 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 due to government decree, it's not a day of commerce either.

The only exceptions in the mall are eating establishments. Being exempt from the law, they stay busy serving people whose euros are burning a hole in their pockets. 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 has another gap, allowing shops to operate in train stations seven days a week because they allegedly accommodate the needs of travelers.

But the people carrying out bags of groceries don't look as though they plan to take them on a train to Prague or Warsaw. They look like they just couldn't manage to get all their shopping done during the week.

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. Carwashes 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.


  1. Even if for secular reasons, it is refreshing to see a country trying NOT to be led around by the nose by consumers and merchants. Yes, people will find a way to do what they want to do, but I still remember a time when places closed by 6 ...or at least by 9...and Sundays only found the major chains open...after 1 pm. There is something wrong with our thinking when we think that cities have to be alive at 1 am...including the local walmarts...and something wrong with our thinking when we think that being open on Sundays would spur on more business. Chick Fil A is a good example showing a business can do well...and still be closed on Sundays and by a certain time at night. If you have something worth buying-people WILL come when you are open-even if those hours are limited by law.

  2. I would have to disgree, I think it hurts buinesses when arent open on Sundays or dont sell achohal

  3. I can see both sides of the issue on this.

  4. Funny, people can make statistics support whatever they want to try to prove....

    Personally I think we are spoiled thinking stores HAVE to be open 24/7 for us to survive. Have we gone so far that we have lost the ability to truely plan ahead as those before our generations did? Have we really become so needy that we cannot do without for a day, or a couple of days? I cannot think of anything I can buy in the store that I could not wait until regular business hours to buy. If it is truely a life threatening situation-then go to the hospital.

    What this article speaks of are the laws in Germany (which do have some serious loopholes apparently) that are in place to keep consumerism from taking such a hold on their way of life.

  5. In my neck of the woods, 24/7 is still a novelty. Wal-Mart does it, and some of the convenience stores, but most everybody else closes by at least 12, mostly by 9.

    Your point is well taken about advance planning, to be sure, but people live on more flexible schedules than they did a generation ago. As you have suggested, the German law is seriously flawed. It's taking care of one issue by exacerbating another.

  6. "Your point is well taken about advance planning, to be sure, but people live on more flexible schedules than they did a generation ago."

    They do indeed, but...regardless of when you work, there is something open during your waking/errand hours. In the case of Germany where most places close by 8, it would include a time for anyone to be able to make it to the store for nessessities. (first /second or third shifts...and here in this household, we've worked them all)

    Around here Walmart is about all that is still open 24/7. Most any other grocery store/discount store that used to have those hours have cut back to closing at least by 10 or 11 pm. That is still quite late given that most open by 7 to 9 am. ::shrugs:: just opinions and perspective. :)

  7. I agree with you to an extent but not completely. Great answer, huh? :-)

  8.'re running for office right? ;)

  9. Yeah, it does sound like a politician answer :-)

    What I'm trying to say is I agree with you in principle, but I like the convenience of 24-hour shopping.