Berlin relaxes arcane shopping laws

German long-suffering shoppers are finally to be set free after Berlin, the country’s capital, scrapped a 50-year old law restricting store opening hours, with other regions soon to follow suit.

The new law, adopted by the state parliament late on Thursday, allows stores to open around the clock six days a week and on ten Sundays a year, something not seen since the end of the 19th century.

The decision wraps up nearly two decades of emotional discussions about the country’s notorious Ladenschlussgesetz, or store-closing law. Since its first, timid relaxation in 1989, the rules have been held as an archetypal symptom of Germany’s inability to embrace change.

In scrapping the law, Berlin became the first of Germany’s 16 states to take advantage of the reform of the country’s federal system which in June extended the legislative rights of regional parliaments. Once other states have adopted their own laws, Germany should have some of most liberal shopping legislation in continental Europe.

The vote drew ecstatic reactions from tourism executives and even prompted praise from the Berlin chamber of commerce, among the bitterest critics of mayor Klaus Wowereit and his government of Social Democrats and Communists.

“This is an invaluable gift to the city,” said Natascha Kompatzki of the Berlin tourism-marketing agency. “We will start marketing the city as a shopping destination as early as next month.”

By contrast, the Verdi services sector union warned of “more low-paid jobs and a worsening of working conditions”. It is considering a legal challenge against the law together with the Catholic and Protestant churches, which oppose Sunday shopping.

Opinion polls have long shown German shoppers to favour liberalisation, and more overwhelmingly so since the temporary suspension of trading restrictions during last summer’s football world cup.

A survey by the GFK market research company taken after the tournament showed 70 per cent of respondents in favour of full liberalisation. Since 2003, when the last reform of the Ladenschlussgesetz was adopted, stores have been allowed to trade from 6am to 8pm from Monday to Saturday.

It remains unclear how far stores will extend their opening hours. The progressive easing of such restrictions in 1989, 1996 and 2003 failed to translate into more sales, and consumer spending remains anaemic despite this year’s robust economic rebound

Several retail groups said they would experiment with opening hours depending on location in the next few weeks. The larger chains said they expected to shut their iron curtains at 10pm, while some said they would only open beyond 8pm from Thursday to Saturday.

Following the capital, nine other regions also plan to introduce the so-called 6x24 rule, allowing around-the-clock shopping from Monday to Saturday, though not all will allow stores to open on the four advent Sundays before Christmas.

The most liberal rules are likely to be found in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern in the former east-Germany, which wants to legalise Sunday shopping all year round. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Bavaria, one of the most popular tourist destinations, will also stick to the old rules after a liberalisation bill failed to find a majority in parliament this week.

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