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Business

Germany Extends Shopping Hours

Starting Saturday, German stores may stay open until 8 p.m. despite protests from organized labor. But Sunday shopping is likely still years away.

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Germans can now sleep in a little later on Saturdays.

As recently as March, the German service sector union ver.di was still campaigning against any loosening of the strict laws regulating shopping hours in the country.

The union described efforts by the government to extend opening hours as "anti-family," claiming the move would lead to the elimination of jobs and come at the expense of existing employees. Ultimately, the union argued, extended shopping hours would lead to a culture-less, 24-hour society. At a large demonstration in Berlin, workers marched behind a banner with the slogan "Weeks without End" scrawled across it.

Sundays still taboo

Three months later, on Saturday, June 7, German shops are, for the first time, opening their doors for an additional four hours on Saturdays – with shopping permitted until 8 p.m. The protests died down months ago and even ver.di has buried its protest messages deep within its Web site. The move marks the biggest change in German shopping hours since 1996, when weekdays shopping hours were extended from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. But Sunday shopping is still a long way off since Germany’s constitution forbids stores from opening on Sundays.

Advocates of extending shopping hours in Germany didn’t have to look very far to find countries with more liberal policies. As happened years ago in the United States, a number of European countries have loosened laws regulating when shops can be opened in recent years. In England, stores can decide for themselves when they want to open. The only major remaining restriction is that stores larger than 280 square meters can only open for six hours on Sundays. The law is intended to protect smaller, non-chain stores that might otherwise be competitively disadvantaged.

24-hour shopping

France and Spain also have consumer-friendly shopping regulations. There shopping is permitted 24 hours a day on workdays. But in the Netherlands, shops must close by 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Shops are also permitted to open on 12 Sundays a year, but in larger cities like Amsterdam and Rotterdam, shops in the city center are open on most Sundays. However, the country’s extended shopping hours have been slow to catch on – though later shopping has been permitted since 1996, only 2 percent of Dutch shopkeepers choose to open later than 9 p.m. On Saturdays, many stores close even earlier – some as early as 5 p.m. And only about 10 percent of the country’s stores take advantage of the so-called "shopping Sundays."

In Germany, a similar reaction is expected. In a recent survey, the German Retailers' Association found that only 42 percent of shopkeepers planned to open their doors past 4 p.m. on Saturdays, the time when stores closed prior to the loosening of the law. Of the stores planning to stay open past four, 90 percent said they would close by 6 p.m. And though the new hours will be set in place on Saturday, retailers are still clashing with unions over organized labor's call for a 50 percent bonus for people who have to work the later hours on Saturdays.

The atmosphere couldn’t be more different than in the United States, where unlimited shopping hours are a part of the history and mentality of the country. Even outside the urban centers, countless supermarkets are open around the clock. Malls and other shopping centers are also open to customers on Sundays, and Sunday shopping is a pastime.

In Germany, laws regulating opening hours have been on the books since the 14th century. Back then, several cities passed laws banning shopping on Sundays. The spirit of the law was to ensure that workers would have at least one day free each week -- a logic which persists to this very day.

But there are signs that such thinking may be changing. A recent poll by the Allensbach Institute showed that two-thirds of Germans favor eliminating the law that restricts shopping hours.

Politicians are starting to react, too. In Berlin, the Social Democrats are demanding the complete elimination of the opening hours law in the populous city-state. The business friendly Free Democrats have also long called for a lifting of the law. But it is likely to be a long time before German sheds a law that is hundreds of years old and adopt the shopping freedom cherished by Brits and Americans.

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