German Town′s Craftspeople Fight Chinese Imports | Business| Economy and finance news from a German perspective | DW | 25.12.2006
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German Town's Craftspeople Fight Chinese Imports

The Christmas market in the eastern German town of Seiffen has become a globalization battleground as local craftspeople try to protect traditional, handmade decorations from a store selling cheaper Asian imports.

Local craftspeople have made the wooden figures by hand for over two centuries

Local craftspeople have made the wooden figures by hand for over two centuries

Christmas angels and nativity figures may not be the first items that come to Germans' minds when they think of globalization, but the small wooden figures that have been handmade in the Erz Mountains of eastern Germany for hundreds of years are being threatened by cheap imports from Asia, according to local business owners.

Seiffen's businesses have come to rely on visitors to its Christmas market, and the town is filled with stores selling Christmas angels, lights, nutcrackers and tree ornaments -- nearly all of which are made by hand in local workshops.

Oversized Christmas decorations along a Seiffen street

At first glance, not much has changed in Seiffen

"We have thousands of visitors every day," said Dieter Uhlmann, the director of the Erz Mountains Handicraft and Toy Manufactures Association. "On the weekends up to 30,000 people come in almost 200 buses. The town can barely handle it, but on the other hand it's nice so many people are interested in the Erz Mountains' folk art and that they come right to Seiffen to see it."

However, locals say that even with all the visitors, there is no more room for Johannes Schulte to sell his goods. Schulte employed 300 workers in China to manufacture the wooden figurines, which he sells for about half the price of the handmade versions.

The price of an Erz original

"I had a look at one of the little wooden men, it cost 140 euros ($183)," one tourist said of a handmade decoration. "That's a lot of money to put somewhere and look at. I don't have that kind of money."

But local businessman Matthias Schalling said most customers realize that many hours of work going into each of the figures.

"We have managed to make it clear to customers that it takes a lot of manual work, and that has its price," he said. "The customers have come to accept it."

Toy maker and saleswoman Ines Reichmann

Ines Reichmann said she's faced verbal abuse for selling imports

But until this year, when Schulte opened his first shop in Seiffen, visitors haven't had much of a choice, as few imported goods were available in town. Now his small store, which advertises "crafts from around the world," has wooden figures made in the Erz Mountains -- and labeled as such -- and other imported figures bearing no label.

It's a difference that Schulte's employees have to deal with every day.

"You get insulted in your own shop pretty often," said Tapea Helmert, a 23-year-old wooden-toy maker and saleswoman. "People ask if we're not ashamed of working here. It doesn't matter to people if we say we're just happy to have a job. People just come in, yell at us and then leave."

Other people simply stand outside and stare in the windows, Helmert and her 22-year-old co-worker Ines Reichmann said. The women said they had been told they would "grow slant eyes" for working in a shop that sells imports.

Mafia-like methods

A toymaker hand paints a wooden figure

Seiffen's toys are tradtionally handmade

Thomas Kirsche, the man Schulte rents the shop from, has also had problems with other locals. He used to run a shop selling local decorations made by other craftspeople, but this year few people were willing to sell their work in his store when they found out to whom he rented a long-empty shop.

"I knew what I was getting into," Kirsche said. "But that such mafia-like methods would be employed, that neighbors I've known for 56 years walk past without looking at me or saying hello, of course, I didn't expect that."

At least one hotel has refused to give Schulte a room after receiving telephone threats, and the businessman once returned to his car to find the windshield smashed, an incident that was not investigated and which Uhlmann said Schulte may have even staged for publicity.

Confronting effects of globalization

"Well, I'm not generally against globalization, but there are a few effects of globalization that you have to confront," Uhlamnn said. "Among them are certain cheap copies, wherever they come from, that flood the German market and ultimately destroy German jobs. In our field, it's not about selling a painted piece of wood but about a piece of German culture."

Golden angel figurines with magnetic heads kiss

Life in Seiffen isn't quite this harmonious

Uhlmann added that he was able to convince landlords not to rent to Schulte when he first tried to set up shop in the area. This time though, now that Schulte was established, local business had decided to start an ad campaign called "originals not knock-offs."

Schulte has decided to take the ad's organizers to court, as he says being called a forger implies he is a criminal. Seiffen businesspeople have objected to the case but could have to pay up to 250,000 euros if the court finds for Schulte.

Schalling said he knows the ads won't be enough in the long term and has decided to register some of his designs with the patent office as well as to expand beyond traditional markets and products as a means of using quality to grow despite the influx of lower priced imports.

"I've been going to a tradeshow in England for awhile now and have developed good contacts there," he said. "We're also trying to come up with new, high-quality things that people will like and identify with. That way we can stay a step ahead."

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