Shop law will put Auntie Emma out of business

The law has ensured that housewives stay housewives

A GERMAN insitution as impreg- nable as the Siegfried Line is under siege. The formidable Ladenschlussgesetz, which for years has maintained strict Teutonic order and kept even the hungry hordes from the east at bay, is about to fall victim to vulgar commercialism. The govern- ment has decreed that the aptly named "Shop Closure Law" must be replaced with one that allows shops to open at the customers' convenience.

Never again will Germans be heard to exclaim "never in the evenings", although Sundays are to remain sacrosanct. Since 1956 when the law was enacted, the shutters have come down at 6.30pm on weekdays, 2pm on Saturdays and, as for Sundays, they never went up in the first place. Buying a litre of milk on the Sabbath is as verboten as washing your car. Only on Thursdays and one Saturday every month are restrictions relaxed.

From the perspective of a social engineer, the system has been immensely successful. It has kept people off the streets in the twilight hours, and ensured that housewives stay housewives. Juggling with the shopping while holding down a steady job has proved impossible in many families. The greatest beneficiaries of the present law were the corner-shop grocers, the so-called "Tante Emma shops". Their owner, the ubiquitous "Auntie Emma" licensed by the local authority, has lived a privileged life free of competition. Out-of-town supermarkets are rare and, in any case, you could never get to them before closing time.

The law says nothing about closing before 6.30pm or during the day. So, as many visitors to Germany have discovered, Tante Emma often has a little nap between 1pm and 3pm, the time when dogs and children must be chased off the streets so the old folks can enjoy their rest. In the few hours she is open, Tante Em- ma lays on service with a snarl. The goods can be expensive and nasty, the change from the till may not follow the rules of arithmetic. A dissatisfied customer can always shop at the store 10 kilometres down the road, if he or she can get there in time.

The government has finally heard the screams of millions of frustrated Germans and agreed to reform. Under proposals outlined on Tuesday, the shops will be allowed to stay open until 8pm on weekdays and up to 4pm on Saturdays. On Sundays, Germans will be allowed to buy fresh bread rolls from bakeries but, alas, no milk for their coffee. Every other shop must remain closed.

It seems too good to be true, and pessimists are quick to point out that the reform must still pass many hurdles. The powerful retail sector union is organising protests, retailers' associations are lobbying hard in the political arena, and some of the big store groups have misgivings. The union worries about its members' quality of life; employers fear the cost of buying the workers' consent. A wage deal valid until the end of next year gives workers 55 per cent extra money for every hour of overtime. Politicians are also wary. The left frets about the workers and is hostile to the big businesses that are likely to benefit. Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democrats are torn between their love of big business and their devotion to all those shop-keepers who vote for the right. And the 16 federal states of Germany, jealous custodians' of social habits, sense an encroachment in their sovereignty. To mollify them, the government proposes to give the Lander an opt-out on Saturdays.

If the law is passed Tante Emma is doomed. Small grocers cannot afford to hire extra staff to stay open late, but customers will be able to shop at larger and cheaper stores. Who knows, the supermarkets' broader selection might even enrich German cuisine. This is already happening in bigger cities, where Turkish cafes have been known to transform themselves miraculously into an Aladdin's cave, even on Sundays. By selling goods outside shopping hours the cafe owner is breaking the law, but his profit margin appears to be adequate compensation for the pain.

Petrol stations have also been doing their bit. They have discovered a loophole in the law allowing travellers to buy bare necessities at any time of the day. Germans can jump into their cars at midnight - walking in is forbidden - and drive to the nearest petrol pump to tank up with beer. To the dismay of the more sober-minded, Shell and its rivals are still not allowed to sell milk.

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