Berlin has enjoyed the most liberal retail trading hours in the country since 2006. Now Germany's constitutional court has upheld a church complaint against shops opening on the four Sundays before Christmas.
Sunday shopping is frowned on in Germany
The Christian idea of Sunday as a day of rest has long been a thing of the past in many countries, such as Britain, especially if you don't equate shopping with relaxation and recreation. In Germany, by contrast, retail laws remain quite restrictive.
Only in the notoriously secular German capital has the approach to Sunday trading been a little more laid back than in the rest of the country. Since 2006, shops in Berlin have been permitted to open on ten Sundays a year, including all four Advent Sundays.
Now a ruling from the country's constitutional court has put the brakes on this creeping liberalization, following an appeal by Germany's two major churches. Next year, Christmas shoppers in Berlin will have to be that little bit more organized.
Catholic and Protestant church officials had complained that opening stores on Sundays made it harder for people - especially those working in the retail industry - to attend church, and harmed the fabric of society. But some retailers feel they are being discriminated against under German law.
Anchored in the constitution
Sunday is enshrined in Article 140 of Germany's Basic Law as a day of rest and "spiritual edification."
In their ruling the judges in Karlsruhe said that commercial interests alone could not justify the opening of shops several Sundays in a row. The court said that workers' right to practice their religion and their need for rest and social contact had to be protected.
The idea that traders need particularly stringent regulation remains firmly anchored in German law, according to Berlin Retail Association head, Nils Busch-Petersen.
"Boozing and waging war is allowed on Sundays, but retailers are looked on very critically. Shining through this ruling is an unfortunate tradition with Occidental-Christian roots that discriminates against traders," he commented.
It's been a poor year for the German retail sector
In the long-term, Busch-Petersen said that industry lobbyists needed to challenge the negative perception of traders and launch a wider social debate on the issue.
For now the Berlin Retail Association head said his members would have to accept that they would not be able to open on all four Advent Sundays next year. But he welcomed the fact that the ruling appeared not to challenge Berlin shopkeepers' right to open on a total of ten Sundays a year.
"Berlin retailers are heavily dependent on shopping tourism. People here don't have so much spending power. Visitors account for some 23.5 percent of total retail turnover," he said.
Economic impact unclear
The lack of experience with regular Sunday shopping in Germany makes it difficult to estimate the economic impact of the restrictive legislation, according to retail expert Matthias Queck.
"It's hard to see how much turnover the shops are really missing out on because that would only be established after people get used to Sunday opening," said the researcher from Planet Retail.
ING Senior Economist Carsten Brzeski welcomed the fact that this year's Advent shopping would go ahead as planned in Berlin.
"Luckily, this ruling will not have an impact this year. Private consumption has been very weak. Retailers need the pre-Christmas sales to make a bad year somewhat bearable," he said.
The church sees itself as a bulwark against consumerism
While German retail sales remain the weak link in the German economy, Brzeski blamed largely the 2007 hike in value-added tax, which brought the rate up to 19 percent, rather than restrictive shopping laws. He is skeptical whether more liberal legislation would kick-start demand.
"Sunday opening is important for Christmas sales. But across the year, the economic impact would be minor. Most Germans do not want to go out and shop on Sundays. I wish it were otherwise," he added.
Closed stores, fuller churches?
The German Retail Federation HDE is, however, similarly skeptical about the alleged link between Sunday trading and the "regrettable drop" in church attendance in Germany. The organization called on the churches to increase their program on shopping Sundays.
Across the border in devoutly Catholic Poland, churchgoing and Sunday shopping appear to co-exist peacefully. But both Germany's Catholic and Protestant churches are happy that their church bells will have less competition from the ringing of cash tills in the run-up to Christmas.
"In Berlin, the whole Advent period was being completely commercialized. This was impinging on our religious freedom. Services do not just take place in the morning. There are also church activities in the afternoon," said Heike Krohn, deputy press spokeswoman for the Protestant church in Berlin and Brandenburg.
Advent is still celebrated by many people in Germany
But she also stressed that it was important for society as a whole for one day to remain sacrosanct -- as a time out from the stresses and strains of everyday life.
"We don't want to dictate to anyone how they spend their Sundays, but it is important for everyone to have this free space in their week," she added.
"Of course, certain groups of people have to work so that society can continue to function at a basic level, but if shopkeepers also have to work on Sundays, this will have a knock-on effect," she said. "Soon there will be no difference between Sunday and the other days of the week."
Ahead of the decision, the head of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), Alois Glueck said the court was dealing with a "fundamental cultural question." The CSU politician said it was a question of whether communal rhythms of life should be given precedence over the non-stop demands of consumer culture.
Author: Julie Gregson
Editor: Sam Edmonds