Berlin merchants find gold in old money

As Germans pinch pfennigs, retailers lure shoppers to stores by accepting the discarded deutsche mark

All week the customers came, some carrying piggy banks, others toting plastic bags and even nylon stockings full of money that was suddenly spendable again.

The deutsche mark had returned.

Out of issue since Germany switched to the euro along with 12 other countries last January, the d mark is being revived temporarily in campaigns to spur consumer spending as the economy flags. Other efforts include a bill before parliament to loosen regulations on store hours, giving Germans an extra four hours to shop on Saturdays and two additional hours on weekday mornings.

The C&A retail chain began taking marks at its 185 department stores on Nov. 30, following a similar experiment by merchants in a northern town. Hundreds of thousands of Germans nationwide are now taking the chance to spend their last handfuls of marks, which stores and many banks stopped accepting at the end of February.

In the first week of the old currency's comeback at C&A, purchases in marks accounted for about 10 percent of national sales, says a spokesman for the chain, and increasing overall sales figures prompted the retailer to extend the program through Dec. 24.

"I think it's worth doing again," says Berlin customer Marian Mahlow after buying clothing using 13 marks ($6.80) she found in winter-coat pockets and her daughter's piggy bank. "I'm sure if I look again, I'll find some more."

At another counter, Anja Marciani carefully stacks 155 deutsche marks ($80) - in change - as other customers wait behind her with a patience remarkable during the Christmas shopping season. "I think it's all there," says Ms. Marciani, as the cashier begins recounting the coins.

Many Germans have curtailed buying amid fears of recession and a perception that the euro has made things more expensive.

Consumer spending in November tied an all-time low set last year, according to GfK, a consumer research institute in Nuremberg.

Economists forecast that stores will do 6 billion euros less business this Christmas than last. Many stores have already reported 70 percent lower sales volume this December than at the same time last year, according to Germany's retailer association.

"With the current economic situation, this came at the right time," says Marciani, who used her leftover marks to buy Christmas gifts of clothing. "If everything were going well for us, then nobody would be complaining about the euro."

An estimated 17 billion deutsche marks remain in circulation, according to Johannes Korz, a spokesman for the Bundesbank, Germany's central bank. Though most of this is in Eastern European countries that used the mark as a sort of second currency, hundreds of millions of marks make their way back to the Bundesbank each month, Korz says.

For many Germans, the amounts left in nooks and crannies at home are too small to bother making a trip to a Bundesbank branch to trade them for euros. That's where enterprising marketeers stepped in to turn those last marks into profits.

The tiny northern town of Kropp took the national media spotlight after it began a spend-your-marks campaign in early November. So far, 60,000 ($31,000) deutsche marks have been spent in shops there, says Kropp's regional marketing manager, Michael Stuehner.

"What C&A is doing makes sense," said Wolfgang Twardawa, head of marketing research at GfK in Nuremberg. "They're accommodating the consumer."

After taking in the old currency, the retailer then converts the marks into euros through the central bank.

The marks campaign plays on nostalgia for the old currency, which many German see as a symbol of postwar resilience.

"The only thing the Germans were proud of following the war was the deutsche mark," says Twardawa. "The strength of the economy was mirrored in the stability of the deutsche mark. [It's] not like in France, where they are proud of their national anthem, or their country. Here, it is about the currency."

In fact, shoppers at a Berlin C&A store have been digging up all sorts of old money to spend.

"We had one or two who also tried paying in the old East German mark," says store manager Thomas Brumann. "We have even had a few bring in old reichs marks."

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