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Everyone except the customer has say in W. German store debate

A tiny revolution is agitating West Germany. A few select shops may soon be allowed to stay open until 10 p.m. if they wish. Or even start serving early-bird customers at 6 a.m. Actually, despite the surrounding controversy, the man on the street will hardly notice the difference. The legislation that had its first reading in the West German parliament this month affects only shops in airports, train stations, or harbors in the 31 German cities with populations of more than 200,000. That covers less than one percent of retail establishments.

No democratic land in the world, complained one newspaper recently, is as rigid in its shop laws as West Germany. Ever since 1956 stores have had to close at 6:30 p.m. And woe betide the hostess who discovers at 6:32 that she needs butter for her dinner party. The law is taken seriously by police and prosecutors who enforce it, as some boutiques in Bremen discovered in a short-lived defiance of the order in 1984.

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Gas stations may sell some items on the side in the evenings -- but these items tend to run less to household necessities than to schnapps. Some crafty furniture stores open their doors Sunday afternoons for ``viewing'' only. This allows couples who work during the week to compare couches at leisure -- so long as they don't sign the contract to buy until Monday. These are very much the exceptions that prove the rule of closure, however.

Each member of the club that is responsible for the present situation, has its own reason for backing what the French deem a German obsession with regulation and what Americans deem an attack on free enterprise:

The conservatives want orderly competition. The trade unions associate the compulsory store hours with the drive for a shorter workweek. The association of small shop owners fears that big chains would reap all the advantages of evening sales and drive the mom-and-pop stores out of business.

That leaves the consumer, who isn't really consulted.

Most of all, clinging to old restrictions can probably be attributed to sheer habit. The 1956 law was a direct descendant of the 1919 law from a totally different political era, and has hardly been questioned over the years.

This distresses a few champions of freer trade. Baden-Wuerttemberg Premier Lothar Spaeth, who has built his political persona on modernizing industry and trade, wants more flexible shop hours as well as high tech. But his recent effort to liberalize store hours failed because of opposition from fellow conservatives.

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