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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Long Hours No Lift for German Stores

BONN -- Just over two months into a new era of longer store hours, many struggling German shopkeepers are putting up their shutters early as shoppers stay away during the long winter evenings.

Store owners had pinned their hopes on the easing last November of a restrictive 40-year-old shop hours law to help break a four-year sales drought.

But an awful Christmas has disheartened many store owners, whose sliding turnover cannot support the extra cost of staying open late, the HDE retail lobby group said Tuesday.

"Increasing numbers of stores are closing early because of the extra costs," HDE spokesman Thomas Werz said. "The turnover situation is so bad that something must be done."

After years of wrangling, the Bonn government last year pushed through a reform allowing stores to stay open 90 minutes later, until 8 p.m. on weekdays, with Saturday closing times pushed back two hours to 4 p.m.

But consumers -- worried by record postwar unemployment and an unsettling debate over government plans to reform personal taxes -- are even less willing to spend than before.

Big German department stores suffered a dismal Christmas, with the BGA trade group this week reporting December sales down 3.4 percent from the previous year. Turnover for 1996 slipped by 1.2 percent.

Many stores are starting to shut earlier in the first half of the week, the HDE says. But big department store chains -- which backed the hours extension -- say they will give the experiment more time.

"All of our branches are staying open late and it will stay like that. We will draw our first conclusions in the summer," said Julie Edelmann-Veith, spokeswoman of the Kaufhof department store chain.

Competitor Karstadt said it would also stick with the longer hours before deciding, on a case-by-case basis, whether to close earlier.

"The period so far has not been representative -- Christmas has just gone and the winter sales are coming," said Karstadt's Monika Franke.

Retail analysts said that center city store managers had missed out on extra business by failing to coordinate opening times and not advertising the new hours aggressively enough.

That might have driven more shoppers -- especially in eastern Germany -- to out-of-town shopping complexes which also offer facilities like cinemas and concert halls.

"We shouldn't say it has been a flop yet," said Michael Wand, stores analyst at Paribas in Frankfurt. "It just takes longer in Germany to change consumer habits."

Shop workers' unions had warned that the new store hours would not bring enough extra turnover to justify requiring staff to work extra late shifts.

"We will look at developments over the next few months, but we think our view has been confirmed by developments so far," said Ingo Schwope of the DAG white-collar union.

Slack retail sales are likely to undermine calls from Economics Minister Guenter Rexrodt -- whose Free Democrat Party originally pressed for the longer store hours -- to allow shops to open Sundays.

That view has already been rejected by Chancellor Helmut Kohl's right-hand man, Wolfgang Schaeuble. Appealing to his Christian Democrat base, Schaeuble said Sunday should remain a day of rest.