WHILE Americans could well spend 4 percent less on Christmas-season shopping this year as a reaction to a sluggish economy, Germany is experiencing a ``boom year,'' according to economic reports. German holiday shoppers are expected to spend up to 10 percent more this year than last. F.W. Woolworth Company was quick to recognize a good opportunity. In early December, the New York company reopened a store in Halle, formerly part of East Germany. The store was one of 18 that had been lost to East German Communists after World War II.
Heinz-Dieter Peyerl, the Halle store manager, says the shopping rush in the West is nothing compared to what he has seen here since opening day. These days the line at the entrance is about 100 yards long on a good day. Mr. Peyerl says the crowds are more manageable than the 300-yard lines of customers he faced the first week.
Another undisputed winner this holiday season is entertainment electronics. The Communications Electronics Association, an industry organization in Frankfurt, says sales by its members already exceed 7 billion deutsche marks for items such as stereos, television sets, radios, and video recorders. Last year, sales were about 5 billion DM.
Germany's candy industry reports a ``critical shortage'' of chocolate Santa Claus treats. Next year, says a spokesman for a leading candy company, ``we'll be ready for the flood.'' Other hot items this year include clothing, household appliances, leather goods, and artificial Christmas trees. Stores all over Germany are reporting record sales.
Reunification is the reason for the extra sales in Germany this year. With the addition of East Germany, the nation's population grew 27 percent. And the people in former East Germany, new to consumerism and eager to buy, have given the economy a strong push - in many cases stronger than retailers dared to hope.
Woolworth spent $1 million to renovate and reopen the Halle store. No Woolworth store has done so well in such a short period of time, says company chairman Harold Sells. He says he expects the ``surprisingly strong'' sales to continue after Christmas.
The company is planning to open at least 50 stores over the next three to five years, Mr. Sells says. Woolworth is looking into buying new locations and reclaiming more old ones. It will open its next store in Erfurth in March.
Worries that East German shoppers would face empty shelves have disappeared, although some smaller shops complain delivery times are longer.
Woolworth employees have been working overtime to meet increased demand, says Ulrich Schillert, spokesman for Woolworth GmbH in Germany.
For East Germans, the return of Woolworth is comparable to the return of an old friend. The stores had been so prominent that people here do not think of Woolworth as a US company.
Peyerl says the store's interior design is as much a draw for customers as its merchandise. Customers ``like anything bright, cheerful, and orderly. The shop is all of these and makes it an enjoyable experience just to look around.''
Merchandise is selling better than the US parent company expected. ``Surprise hit items'' include remote-control toys, the first East German youths had seen, and the board-game Monopoly, Peyerl says. Children at the store opening said they were attracted by ``moving, colorful toys,'' while many older youths were anxious to buy the ``capitalist game.''
But the item that sold best was the artificial Christmas tree. The item fits well the needs of Eastern Germans, known for their frugal buying habits, Mr. Schillert says. ``Apparently, the idea of buying an item that can be used again and again is attractive to shoppers who count their pennies.''