Bonn readies for shopping battle

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NEVER MIND 'Never on a Sunday' when it comes to shopping in Germany. Make that 'Never on a Sunday', 'Never late at night' and almost 'Never on a Saturday afternoon'.

For a nation with some of the biggest consumers in the world, Germany contrives to have shopping laws that are among the most restrictive to be found anywhere. Foreigners, spoilt by late- night corner shops, 24-hour stores and Sunday opening, have long condemned the German regulations.

Now it appears many Germans feel the same way. '. . . (these laws) . . . belong in the junk-room of out-of-date rules', stormed no less a figure than Peter Hintze, the general-secretary of Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democrats (CDU), in a recent interview. His call was taken up earlier this week by Werner Hoyer, Mr Hintze's counterpart in the ruling coalition's junior partners, the Free Democrats (FDP), who promised to introduce a bill on the matter when the parliament reconvenes next month.

Whereas the FDP would like to see a total liberalisation of the laws, the CDU would stop short of wanting to see Sunday opening. Whatever changes are proposed, however, both parties will face the full wrath of Germany's powerful trade union movement, which fought for the introduction of the laws in the 1950s.

'The current regulations have never harmed anybody - on the contrary, they have been only of benefit,' said Roland Tremper of the Berlin branch of the German Union of Employees (DAG). 'For us, longer opening hours, as in the United States, would be a nightmare.'

Under the current laws, which are restrictive and confusing, shops are always closed on Sundays and, on three Saturdays out of four, are obliged to shut at 1pm (2pm in city centres). On normal weekdays, shops must close by 6.30pm, except for Thursdays, when they can stay open an extra two hours.

Those pressing for change argue that, in addition to giving the consumer greater freedom of choice as to when to shop, longer opening hours would encourage people to spend more, thereby boosting a flagging economy and generating more jobs.

The unions dismiss this argument, saying people are only going to spend a fixed amount of money no matter how long shops are open and that longer working hours would mean higher wage bills and overheads for shop-owners and, ultimately, higher prices for consumers.

'If you asked most people if they wanted shops to open for longer, of course they would say yes,' said Mr Tremper. 'If you ask them if they want to pay extra for it, the answer would undoubtedly be no.'