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Germany loosens time limit on shops

Saturday, June 7, 2003

FRANKFURT, Germany -- The Saturday shopping sprint is a time-honored German tradition: a frantic push through long lines for last-minute groceries as the clock ticks toward the mandatory 4 p.m. closing time.

But that tradition ends today, when a new law takes effect allowing stores to stay open four more hours -- until 8 p.m. -- as they do every other day except Sunday, when shops are closed altogether.

The battle for the extension, which met fierce resistance from unionized store workers and some shopkeepers, highlighted the difficulty of reforming Europe's largest economy, even as it teeters on the brink of recession.

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's government hopes the longer hours will pump more money into suffering retailers' tills in a country where the economy is in its third year of stagnation -- and shrank by 0.2 percent in the first three months of this year.

"I hope that as many businesses as possible will use the new chance, and I hope that consumers will now be able to fulfill their wishes without time pressure," economics and labor minister Wolfgang Clement said Friday. "That would be a boost for the economy, it will revitalize our downtowns and so help other businesses."

However, stores are not likely to open Sunday anytime soon: The German constitution calls the day one for "spiritual elevation."

Alfred and Tamara Steinbrecher, strolling past the shops on Frankfurt's Schillerstrasse, said the change was overdue.

"The longer, the better, as in England or America," said Alfred Steinbrecher, a retired businessman pulling a shopping cart.

"You simply can't get it all done on Saturday," said Tamara Steinbrecher, a doctor. "You spend one whole hour just standing in line."

Shopping time used to be even shorter -- as late as 1996, the law mandated a 2 p.m. close on Saturday and 6:30 p.m. during the week. Germany's powerful labor unions have fought against the latest change, mobilizing some 20,000 people for a March protest in Berlin.

That opposition is reflected in the employee councils, which under German law must agree to new hours.

But the collective bargaining agreement does not specify how much workers should get for four additional hours, so stores must cut individual deals.

Berlin's giant KaDeWe department store, for instance, has been able to persuade its workers to agree to work only until 6 p.m and is taking the issue to arbitration.

"We hope to be open until 8 p.m. by Christmas time," spokeswoman Dagmar Flade said.

Furniture chain Ikea, on the other hand, was able to get employees at its 30 stores in Germany to work until 8 p.m. The firm already pays workers a 20 percent hourly wage premium on Saturdays, and they will get the same deal for the extra hours.

The German Retail Federation said it found in a survey that only 42 percent of its members intend to stay open past 4 p.m.

Many among Germany's legions of small, family-owned stores still keep to the old 2 p.m. Saturday close -- and do not plan to change.

"I would have to hire more people and pay more in costs -- it wouldn't pay," said Hans-Joachim Knapp, who runs the flower shop his father founded in 1956 on a quiet Frankfurt side street.

The problem isn't the hours -- it's the economy, he said: "People are holding back, they have less money."

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