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Is it time Germany opened up on Sundays?

Arthur Sullivan
April 15, 2021

Many in Germany are familiar with the unseemly clamor to stock up on groceries before Sundays. That’s because here, Sunday is an explicitly noncommercial day. Economists are demanding a more flexible approach.

A deserted shopping street in Cologne
A deserted shopping street in Cologne, GermanyImage: Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

As you might expect for Europe's powerhouse economy, commerce is king in Germany. Except, that is, on Sundays, when the nation's stores are definitively shuttered.

Long before pandemic lockdowns forced closures every day, Sunday was already a sacred day of rest for German retailers and consumers. Over the years, many non-Germans have found that out to their surprise and disappointment.

It's all because of the Ladenschlussgesetz or "Shop Closing Law." A federal German law in place since 1956, it bans retail stores of all kinds from opening their doors on Sundays and public holidays, along with some other restrictions.

While individual states were given more leeway to make their own rules in 2006, Sunday shopping remains largely a no-go throughout the country. There are however a few designated Sunday shopping days each year and very limited exceptions for certain shops.

The power of the church

Calls for a loosening of the law crop up occasionally. But according to Gerrit Heinemann, professor for retail and trade at Niederrhein University for Applied Sciences, there are three reasons why he believes things will not change anytime soon: the resistance of the Catholic and Protestant Churches, the influence of trade unions and works councils and finally, the opposition of city parliaments.

 Gerrit Heinemann
Gerrit Heinemann believes the next decade will see people staying home more than ever, due to pandemic aftereffectsImage: Detlef Ilgner

The two churches' influence as lobby groups is particularly strong he believes. "It is just a very important opinion when the church says no. Especially when the main political party has the word 'Christian' in its name," he told DW.

Beyond religious reasons, many associate Sundays as a time for family, and cultural opposition to Sunday opening is particularly strong. Michael Lind, the managing director of three Nahkauf (Rewe) supermarket franchises in Berlin, told DW that it was good for his employees to have their Sundays free.

"Sunday is still a day where you do a little something with the family," he says. "If you are now open every day, well, say the husband of a worker is a painter and he has Sundays off but his wife is a saleswoman and now she has to work on Sundays, then family life is disrupted."

But he agrees that were the law to allow Sunday opening, the culture would gradually adjust. Working in retail since 1997, he can remember how the Ladenschlussgesetz evolved to where it is today.

"When I started trading over 20 years ago, we closed at 3 p.m. on Saturdays," he said at his store on Kiehlufer in Berlin's Neukölln district.

"We broke up at 6 p.m. during the week. And when I started in 1997, we had a special 'long Thursday' until 8.30 p.m. or so. And then there was also a lot of moaning that it was open for so long. But over time it has stretched out and out, you have to say that. So accordingly, it (Sunday opening) would also work out."

Sign reading 'Our store is closed on Sunday'
'Our shop is closed on Sundays' - a familiar concept in GermanyImage: picture-alliance/dpa/F. Rumpenhorst

Financial reasons to open

If the law were changed and if cultural and religious reasons were set aside, would it make sense financially for German retailers to open their doors on Sundays?

The German Retail Federation (HDE), a lobby group for the retail industry, thinks so. "Retailers do not aim at general Sunday openings but need the Ladenschlussgesetz to become more flexible. It is vital for our city centers and the retail industry as a whole to be able to open their shops on Sundays at times," it told DW in a statement.

It believes that, post-pandemic, allowing stores to open on Sundays would provide an avenue toward the rejuvenation of depleted city centers. "This way shopping becomes an event and part of family trips. And it is herein that the future of our city centers lies."

But Heinemann is doubtful. He believes the pandemic has prompted a fundamental, longer-term shift away from brick-and-mortar retailers and that there is limited evidence that Sunday opening would be worth it.

The online problem

Michael Lind hasn't seen much evidence that Sunday opening would be lucrative in the groceries business, based on the few Sundays per year his shops are allowed to open. But he believes it would be valuable for retailers in fashion, furniture and electrical goods, due to the growing pressure they face from online competitors.

Michael Lind (pictured left)
Michael Lind (pictured left) has been involved in retail trade for 24 years and runs three supermarkets in BerlinImage: Thomas Rosenthal

"This is already a problem for many companies," he said. "And you shouldn't forget that bricks-and-mortar retailers pay their taxes here, but many online retailers only send goods and don't pay their taxes in this city."

But even though he doesn't see Sunday opening as essential for his trade, if it was one day allowed in Germany, he would have no choice but to embrace it fully.

"Competition would force you to do so. Because otherwise I will lose customers. So if Sunday is ever open, then as a rule I think 90% of all markets will be open."

Breaking a 1,700-year habit

It's unlikely to be any time soon. A recent proposal by the government in the Bavarian city of Regensburg to allow for just two additional Sunday opening days for shops in the city to help retailers recover from lockdowns quickly ran into difficulty. 

Questions were raised over its legality, while there was also swift opposition from a group called The Alliance for Free Sundays (Allianz für den freien Sonntag), a pressure group backed by religious associations and trade unions aimed at preserving Sunday's status.

The Alliance recently celebrated an apparent 1,700-year anniversary of "free Sundays," dating back to a decree by Constantine the Great in the year 321. "Sunday is not a day for shopping and toiling. It belongs to the family, faith, culture, sport, socializing and recreation. And it should stay that way!" the group says on its website.