BONN, WEST GERMANY
A CONTROVERSIAL new law may change the nature of this country's most-played full-contact sport: Shopping.
The short (even by European standards) business hours of stores here turn shopping into a huge game of beat the clock. Consumers suspend normal etiquette in an effort to buy what they need before the 6:30 weekday closing time. Weekends aren't much better: After 2 o'clock on Saturday, stores don't reopen till Monday. Once a month, the Saturday closing is extended to 6 p.m.
In the land of high-speed Autobahns, a newcomer finds similarly paced shoppers flowing through pedestrian-only shopping zones late in the afternoon and on Saturdays. Eyes focused forward, customers stride purposefully from shop to shop, select what they want, pay for it, and head straight for the door. Aisle-blocking browsers and sidewalk dawdlers may be viewed with lip-curling scorn.
Some leave the country to go grocery shopping. Yolan Friedhof, an orchestra musician, and her fiance take advantage of France's later closing hours by regularly driving just over the border from Saarbr"ucken.
``A lot of the cars in the parking lots there have German license plates,'' notes Ms. Friedhof. ``Some stores even let you pay in deutsche marks.''
For a majority of consumers, especially single people and working couples, the infamous Ladenschlussgesetz (store-closing laws) create a major inconvenience. So after more than ten years of effort, the government did something: They increased shopping hours by two hours a week. Starting this month, stores were given the option of remaining open until 8:30 on Thursday nights.
On the first night of longer hours, stores were full of shoppers. Hired musicians and bustling crowds made for a carnival atmosphere. It almost masked the controversy and acrimony that this issue had produced.
``Thursday night shopping will be a flop,'' Dieter Steinborn said. The chairman of the Union of Store, Bank, and Insurance Clerks had fought to keep the laws as they were. Other powerful unions did the same.
``The costs will be too high, both socially and economically,'' says Gustav Artz, press spokesman for the German Employees Union. ``People will have to work at night instead of being home with their families. Electricity, extra police, overtime pay for employees will cost more than the store owners will earn in sales.''
Many citizens, even those who have taken advantage of the new hours, worry about the social changes that the laws may bring. Moves toward rampant consumerism and 24 hour-a-day shopping - perceived here to be the norm in the United States - are viewed as threats to the well-structured German way of life.
Richard Manfred Dempe, spokesman for the Association of Consumer Groups, predicted that while most Germans would take advantage of longer hours, few would agitate for them. To do so would appear materialistic, even unseemly.
Indeed, informal samplings of first-time night shoppers in Bonn found that roughly half were enthusiastic about the new hours. Others were either noncommittal, or voiced comments such as, ``This just means more work for people,'' and ``I wonder how this will affect people's savings?''
A similar wait-and-see attitude could be seen in store owners. A poll taken after the law was changed in June found that only 21 percent planned to stay open. Of the other 79 percent, half were definitely planning on staying closed and the other half said they might remain open ... but only if enough other stores did so first.
On the first late night, between 20 and 30 percent of all stores closed at 6:30, according to press reports. A week later, significantly more stores stayed open.
The group that was the most in favor of changing store closing hours was the small Free Democratic Party (FDP). Since 1978, the junior partner of the ruling coalition government had made liberalization of the shop-closing laws a key part of its political platform.
According to Lothar Mahling, a former spokesman for the FDP, the party's main reason for proposing the change was to make shopping ``less stressful for consumers.''