Who’s left holding the (grocery) bag?
One definition of culture shock: The first time an American goes through the checkout lane at a German grocery store. The first shock is seeing the cashier/checker comfortably seated rather than standing. The second comes as the purchased items come zipping across the laser scanner — and you, the customer, discover that you are also the bagger (Einpacker). And you are under pressure from the person behind you when the checker starts scanning his/her groceries, barely a split second after you have paid. (The third shock comes if you don’t have your own bag.)
German entrepreneur Martin Lettenmeier wants to change that. At least the bagging part. He has founded a company in Fürstenfeldbruck, Bavaria with a typically “German” name: Friendly Service. (He probably chose the English name because the concept barely exists in German.) Based on his experience in the USA, Lettenmeier wants to spread the idea of the friendly grocery bagger in Germany. (“Profis stehen den Kunden beim Einpacken bei.”)
Lettenmeier had the radical idea (in Germany) of providing baggers (Einpackhilfen) to German grocery stores and Drogerien. His baggers are high school and college students (age 16-24) who want to earn a bit of extra money on weekends. Lettenmeier trains them how to bag and how to give “friendly service” – and earn more tips. The Friendly Service baggers are paid in tips only, which are entirely theirs to keep. According to the company, they earn between 7 and 15 euros per hour, more than most restaurant food servers. Friendly Service charges each supermarket 3 euros per hour per bagger to cover administrative and training costs.
Sounds like a win-win situation, right? But this is Germany. As soon as the Verdi retail workers’ union got wind of the fact that the baggers were not paid any basic wage, they complained that a bagger could end up working a shift without any pay. But Lettenmeier claims his baggers earn an average of 9 euros an hour, more than many Ph.D. graduate interns make. He points out that his Einpacker are quite content with their earnings and they happily return to their job each day. He also says that he tried the basic wage mode, but found that the baggers were not as motivated to provide good service as those now working only for tips.
Other critics have accused Friendly Service of providing “zero-euro-jobs” (a play on “one-euro-job” (der Ein-Euro-Job), a German work-for-welfare term), ignoring the fact that the baggers can earn more per hour than many retail union workers. A typical mindless reaction is “Warum ich ab sofort nicht mehr bei Edeka und Marktkauf einkaufe” (“Why as of now I will no longer shop at Edeka and Marktkauf” – no longer online), a blog by a rather anonymous anti-Agenda 2010, anti-capitalistic “Alex” — who calls the Friendly Service baggers “Trinkgeld-Sklaven” (“tip slaves”). Lettenmeier calls such talk nonsense; he just wants to provide a service and wants his baggers to learn that they are responsible for their own success. A more balanced view of the situation can be found in articles in the Süddeutsche Zeitung and the Augsburger Allgemeine. Lettenmeier: “Es ist ein flexibles System, das intelligent und fair ist und niemanden benachteiligt.” (“It’s a flexible system that is intelligent and fair, and puts no one at a disadvantage.”)
The radical anti-tip-slave pressure from various quarters has forced some German supermarkets to cancel or reconsider their contracts with Friendly Service. It seems some Germans would prefer that people remain unemployed rather than make a decent income off of tips! If the baggers aren’t happy with their “zero-euro-jobs,” they have the choice of quitting. But the unions and other critics would deny them any choice at all. And supermarkets that want to provide a service to their customers, and a rare one at that, are being characterized as capitalist pigs rather than forward-looking business people.
MORE > Shopping in Germany from The German Way