After heated national debate, it was agreed. Germany needed longer shopping hours to help become a more flexible, modern society. But now, with liberalized shop hours a reality, many Germans don't seem to care.
A recent poll shows only 44 percent of Germans taking advantage of the new law, which went into effect Nov. 1.
"Germans' leisure evenings are the best organized in the world," explains Thomas Werz, spokesman for HDE, the German retailers' association, in Cologne. "It's taking them a while to adjust to the fact that they can do something else in the evening than watch television or meet with friends."
Call it the retailing revolution that hasn't yet come. As Germany moves through its second month of liberalized shopping hours, the status quo is holding its own nicely against the forces of change.
During the Yuletide shopping season, the central retail district of Cologne is thick with throngs of shoppers in the afternoons, even on weekdays. But evenings are another story. Stores can remain open till 8 p.m. Monday through Friday, but not many customers appear to be shopping later. The same pattern holds true in other cities.
Though off to a slow start, the longer hours are helping some consumers. The recent poll, taken Nov. 15 to 23 by the Allensbach Institute, found that 52 percent of working people had taken advantage of the new hours, and a similar number said the change was a "real help."
"It's a good thing for me," says Nicole Berk of Bonn, who works days supervising children. "Now I can do my shopping after I get off work."
Mr. Werz says big cities have not seen the sales gains they hoped the new hours would bring, except on Saturdays. Thursday sales have actually fallen, plunging 20 percent, he says. Under the old system, stores were open till 8:30 p.m. on "long Thursday." The loss of "that last half hour" has caused many to postpone shopping trips to Saturday, he says. Saturday, with stores now allowed to be open till 4 p.m. rather than 2 p.m., has become "a shopping day for the whole family."
After the holiday season, Werz and other experts predict, merchants will rethink their schedules and may start closing at 7 p.m. or opening later in the mornings.
"It is awfully quiet here after 7 p.m.," says a saleswoman in a children's wear shop in the old city center of Oberhausen.
Members of the retail employees' union HBV are "satisfied" with the new law, says Rdiger Wolff, a union spokesman in Dsseldorf. "They have had to make some significant adjustments. But with the bonuses for the extra hours, and the other provisions of the labor agreements, they have accepted the new situation."
Retail employees get a 20 percent bonus for working the later hours. And Mr. Wolff ticks off a list of those who can be exempt from working evenings: parents with young (up to 15-year-old) children; those with parents or spouses needing care; pregnant women; those whose continuing education would suffer from evening work; and those who customarily take public transport to work.
German retailing isn't completely immune to the forces of change, however.
Customer service is widely seen as needing improvement. Two-thirds of Germans feel "not very welcome" as shoppers in stores, according to a recent Agamus Research poll. The survey was commissioned by Focus magazine, which headlined its story "Service-Wasteland Germany."
Some retailers are trying to adapt by offering new services, such as home delivery of goods. And the food halls of the Kaufhof Galeria department store in Bonn have started offering bagging service. In most German supermarkets, customers scramble to bag their own goods while the checkout clerk gazes away or chats with colleagues.
Merchants from other countries may affect customer-service expectations, too. The British retailer Marks & Spencer opened its first store in Germany in Cologne in October. Spokeswoman Tracy Nelson says the store's strategy includes "quality products, value for money, and a standard of customer service that," as she carefully puts it, "may exceed expectations."
Eddie Bauer is another recent arrival in Germany: The American casual-clothing retailer, partly owned by Hamburg mail-order merchant Otto, has opened two German stores since September. Spokesman Wolfgang Stger says, "We'd like to have even longer hours. Every hour we're open is another hour we can be there for our customers."