For an American, it takes some getting used to. German shopping hours have come a long way over the last decade or so, but there’s still a lot of room for improvement. I’ve followed the Ladenschluss (“store closing” law) phenomenon since the “good ol’ days” — when stores in Germany were locked up tighter than a drum by 6:00 or 6:30 in the evening, even in big cities. Sunday has always been a no-shopping day, but Berlin has been at the vanguard of the effort to change that. (Eastern Germans enjoyed better shopping hours in their socialist GDR — even on Sunday. They had less to shop for, but more time to shop for it. After the Wall came down, they suddenly had more restricted shopping hours.)
I have mixed feelings about not being able to buy anything on Sunday. There is a certain charm to a country that almost shuts down completely on the day of the sun (Sonntag). In theory, it’s a good idea that allows families to spend more time together and spend less time on “evil” consumerism. On the other hand, in a country where almost nobody goes to church on Sunday, the churches and unions have managed to limit Germans’ freedom, telling them what they can not do on Sunday.
I was surprised to learn that Germany did not officially forbid Sunday shopping until 1919. The first German laws on opening hours (in 1900) were fairly liberal: from 5:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. The more restrictive 1956 law lasted for 40 years — almost without any changes! The “long Saturday” was introduced in 1957 (stores could stay open until 2:00 p.m.). Advent Saturdays came in 1960. Some 29 more years would go by before anything “major” happened. The “long Thursday” law of 1989 allowed shops to stay open until 8:00 p.m. on that one day a week, but few stores actually did so (a common trait to every liberalization step over the years).
Finally, at last, German consumers had had enough of being treated like children who had to shop as if it were still 1956. It only took 40 years, but in 1996 the dam began to break. Monday through Friday, stores could remain open until 8:00 p.m. and until 4:00 p.m. on Saturday. (There had always been exceptions for tourism, train stations, florists, bakeries, and such.) Another step came in 2003, with an 8:00 p.m. closing time on Saturday. (But try to find a store in Germany that actually does!)
But Germany finally came to its senses with the so-called “federalism reform” of 2006. As of July that year, each Bundesland (state) could determine its own store closing times. If they don’t, the 2003 federal law applies. So far only two German states (Bavaria and Saarland) out of 16 have not passed their own law, and most of the Länder now have much more liberal opening hours, with Berlin out front.
But why not take the French approach? There, shopkeepers and store owners decide when they will be open or closed, even on Sunday if they want. Other than laws about employee working hours and other protections, stores decide when it’s profitable to be open. Finally, Germany is moving in that direction. In most of the German states now, stores can be open at any time Monday through Saturday (not that many are). There are now ten verkaufsoffene Sonntage (shopping Sundays) per year in Berlin, and most Berliners would like to get rid of the Sunday closing laws all together. It’s only a question of time. Let’s just hope it doesn’t take another 40 years this time.