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Shopping in Germany

Shop 'til you drop, German-style

Germans love to shop. In fact, you might say it's a national pastime, which is a good thing because it makes finding anything you need easy.

"The mall," however, which you may be used to, is not nearly as well-developed in Germany. But more and more of them have been opening over the last couple of years, including a variety of "Outlet Malls".

You can find a number of "Big Box" stores in many city suburbs, and even in some city centers. Hela Baumarkt and Hornbach, for example, are do-it-yourself stores. MediaMarkt and Saturn, on the other hand, offer appliances, home electronics, music and video as well as computers and telephones. Ikea and Moebel Martin have their own outlets.

There are also the "hyper-stores" such as Real, Kaufland and Globus Handelshof which offer a wide range of products including groceries, household goods, beverages, pet supplies, clothing etc. These hyper-stores are housed within shopping centers and often coupled with a few other large specialty stores.

Then there are the German "discounters" such as Aldi and Lidl, which enjoy an almost cult following and specialize in groceries and a weekly rotation of items ranging from textiles to toys or office supplies at unbeatable prices.

Mid to large-size towns all have their classic 'Marktstrassen' or market streets, often charming pedestrian zones with stores running on either side of the street. Good public transportation systems make it less necessary to shop by car, and many cities have revamped their downtown shopping areas and made them pleasant places to stroll and shop. Outdoor cafés, sidewalk musicians, benches, fountains, trees and shrubbery, weekly fruit, flower and vegetable market stands, make shopping a very pleasant experience.

Changes in the law and the rise of discount stores have led to some refreshing price reductions, especially in food stores.

Once you get away from the department stores and discounters, though, specialization is the name of the game. Many small shops offer a wide selection of items within a limited product line, such as fashions, china, glassware, leather goods, fine metalware, shoes, handicrafts, toys, electrical goods, musical instruments, optical instruments, books, flowers, spices, oriental carpets, sports equipment, tobacco products, antiques, candles, maps to name just a few. These niche shops, however, are often forced to charge higher prices to stay competitive.

Specialization is particularly noticeable in food stores. The Metzgerei (butcher), Backerei (bakery) and Konditorei (pastry shop) are run by masters of their profession. The product is good and these places are often set up so that you can enjoy a fresh roll, hot sausage or piece of cake right on the premises. Another very special kind of food store is the Reformhaus (health food store), where the health-conscious Germans get their organic yogurt, whole grain breads, tofu and vitamins.

Shop While Traveling

The medieval, walled city of Rothenburg is always worth a visit, especially as it is home to the "mother of all Christmas stores," Käthe Wohlfahrt's. Visitors to the store should allow time to take in the German National Christmas Museum, directly above the main shop.

Places like Luxembourg have long been noted for much lower prices on a host of items, including gas, tobacco, coffee, tea and alcohol. Many far-Western Germans fill their tanks in the Grand Duchy during the week as well as on Sunday, when a car wash is nowhere to be found in the Federal Republic. With taxation causing German petrol prices to soar, Luxembourg and even Switzerland offer pleasant diversions and Sunday shopping.

Online Shopping

Sometimes savings are also possible by ordering online, and the German Trade Board, or "Hauptverband des Deutschen Einzelhandels," reports that 93.9 percent of German households now have computers. You can eliminate the travel agent's fee when booking airline tickets or hotel rooms, and many online retailers have saved themselves the expense of a bricks and mortar store. The big mail-order companies like Quelle and Neckermann have put their entire catalogs online, accessible 24/7.

Another advantage of online shopping is variety. Expatriates can turn to the web to get items from home that are not normally available in German stores. While there are some British and American stores in the larger German cities, many expats don't have easy access to them. To the delight of many customers, enterprising store-owners are now offering their products online with convenient English language websites. Large variety, ease and security of payment, and efficient shipping combine to make on-line shopping a great alternative.

Personal checks as Americans know them are virtually non-existent in Germany. Non-cash transactions are usually by fund transfer or with debit cards from the customer's bank or with an EC card. Credit cards are not as well established as in some other countries, but are becoming more and more popular.

Nuts & Bolts of Shopping

Thanks to changes in the law, opening hours are quite liberal. Many stores are open from 8 am until as late as10 pm from Monday to Saturday and generally closed on Sundays - there are always exceptions so do check in advance. Large railroad stations and airports have stores open around the clock. Neighborhood kiosks also have extended hours, as do gas stations, which usually have non-automotive items for sale.

It pays to watch out for the annual sales; the Winter-Schlussverkauf (winter closeout sale) and Sommer-Schlussverkauf (summer closeout sale.) These usually begin on the last Mondays of January and July respectively and run through the second following Saturday. They used to be a matter of law, and were the only ones permitted during the year. But recent changes mean that you might find a sale at any time of year: be it for an anniversary of the store's founding or the end of a season.

Though the closeout sales are no longer official, customers like them and they are usually retained. They offer lots of goods, notably clothing, sporting equipment and household items, at savings of up to half price.

The sales are not the only way of saving money in Germany. Sometimes it is possible to find coupons offering special reduced prices on specific items as well as percentage off on some items.

Somewhat more popular are the retail reward programs, in which the customer gets a card which he or she presents when making a purchase at a participating store. A certain number of points, often a cent for every Euro, will be recorded on the card. When enough points have been assembled, the customer can have something free or at a discount. Participants run the gamut from supermarkets and department stores to car rentals, telephone companies and hotels.