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Germany marks a year of longer shopping hours

October 31, 1997

BERLIN (AP) _ It was, for Germans, a retail and social revolution: One year ago Friday, the government started letting stores stay open 1 1/2 to 2 hours longer, until 8 p.m. weekdays and 4 p.m. Saturdays.

Labor unions and store owners deemed the plan disastrous before it even began, and some remain skeptical today, saying longer hours have failed to create jobs as promised.

Only customers seem happy.

No more dashing out at lunchtime to buy that new dress. No more waiting in long lines with other last-minute shoppers. No more rushing from the office only to find the grocery store closed.

According to several recent consumer polls, about 75 percent of customers are pleased.

``Before, I had to leave work in the middle of the afternoon just to go shopping,″ said Marek Musial, a university worker who was loading beer bottles and vegetables into a backpack after a 7:30 p.m. trip to the grocery store. ``This is just so much easier.″

Staying open late isn’t mandatory. Some stores, such as Kaisers grocery store in Berlin, stay open until 8 p.m. only on Thursdays and Fridays. Many shops in the suburbs and smaller cities experimented with longer hours, only to return to the old schedule.

``Out where we live, a lot of stores close earlier,″ said Edith Reichert, shopping with her boyfriend in the pedestrian mall in Bonn, Germany’s capital. ``We often come into the city to shop for food, clothes, whatever.″

Allowing longer store hours was a dramatic break with tradition for Germany, where the powerful unions usually come first and the customers last. But Chancellor Helmut Kohl sold the law as a job-creator, and Parliament approved it with the condition that it be reviewed after three years.

Retailers say they’ll need at least that long to determine if the longer hours are having any of the promised benefits, from more jobs to higher sales.

``We are only now beginning to adjust,″ Bernd Rueckert, president of the Berlin Retailers Association, said Friday. So far, he said, just 11 percent of retailers in Berlin have hired extra employees to keep up with the new hours.

Germany’s unemployment, 11.2 percent in September, is still near a postwar high. Labor unions say longer store hours have done nothing to help joblessness and have only created more stress for workers.

``Despite the longer store hours, unemployment continues to get worse,″ said Hermann Franzen, president of the trade union HBV, the most vehement protester last year against the new law.

HBV, which represents service industry workers, says it expects 35,000 of its members to have lost jobs by the end of 1997.

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