Massive shopping malls built outside towns and cities have rung the death knell for many German city centers. One town is hoping to buck the trend by minting its own currency and luring back shoppers.
Eberswalde's businesspeople are anxious to keep shoppers downtown
It's a familiar scene on the outskirts of many German towns and cities: Huge shopping malls, reasonably priced and easily reached by car, beckon shoppers by offering almost everything under one roof.
While they may offer an occasion for family outings, there's no denying that the developments have been squeezing small retailers in city centers and turning once lively downtown areas into mere shadows of themselves. For years the process has been supported by tax breaks.
Bucking the trend with the "Barni"
But the town of Eberswalde, northeast of Berlin in the state of Brandenburg, has had enough. It plans to buck the trend with a unique initiative. Bakers and pharmacists hope to attract shoppers back into town with specially minted coins that work on a rebate system.
The coins, known as Eberswalder Barni, are minted in copper and pure silver and personally crafted by silversmith Klaus Musahl. The silver tokens are reserved for the most loyal customers. Most shoppers make do with a copper version of the coin.
"The Barni helps us get customers into the shops, and it's a way of thanking them," Musahl said. "And because lots of shops are using the Barni, it bonds all the retailers together at the same time."
Whether it's in the bakery, the shoe store or the local pharmacy, every purchase in the center of Eberswalde is rewarded. Shoppers can swap their tokens for prizes in more than 20 locations.
For locals, the Barni is a unique way of promoting customer loyalty and the region, known as Barnimer Land.
An antidote to mega stores
The idea for the coin was originally hatched by two pharmacies in Eberswalde. They were fed up with waiting for a local government initiative to lure customers back to the town center. So for a quick cure, they prescribed the Barni. Now more and more stores are signing up to the scheme. Around 80,000 Barnis are already in circulation.
The Barni: loyalty pays
"Those retailers taking part have all said the tokens have brought a significant improvement and they can back it up with customer numbers," said Kathrin Wegner-Repke, a pharmacist in Eberswalde. "And it's become a real talking point in the city. People want to know where they can get a new design. We even have people making suggestions about what should be on the coins, like things from the region or something similar."
Small businesses in Eberswalde hope the Barni will help counteract the huge stores that have sprouted up on the outskirts. The major retail chains have lured customers away with free parking and low prices.
Urban planner and Green party politician Andreas Fennert said the development has been shortsighted.
"People took too long to put the brakes on this," he said. "When there's a market here, they shouldn't allow a major supermarket chain to open there. People were intimidated, they didn't know how to stop it. And that's the problem that probably most communities face."
Breathing life back into the city center
And it was often the center of the town that suffered the consequences: Shop owners closed their doors, investors stayed away and many residents moved to the outer suburbs.
To counter this de-urbanization, Eberswalde developed an initiative to bring the buzz back to the city center. After decades of neglect, the entire Eberswalder inner city is getting a facelift and has been declared a special development zone. A new commercial center is under construction, helped by state and federal funds.
But money alone won't solve all of Eberswalde's problems. The transformation will take time.
"Managing commercial areas outside or inside the city is one thing," said Günther Prüger, a city planner in Eberswalde. "Trying to bring the people back to the city is another. Fortunately for us, we are at the start of a trend here. As the city center gets redeveloped, more and more people will come back and enjoy living there."
Prüger is optimistic that the initiative will work.
"This is the heart of the city here, and we've always said it has to start beating again," he said.