Germany is infamous for its law prohibiting most forms of commercial activity on Sundays. Supermarkets, shops and, of course, offices are closed for the entire day (some supermarkets near the main train station remain open on Sundays). There is good reason for this law. It helps ensure that workers receive a uniform day off to spend time with their family, or however else they so choose. Yet this law, and other laws limiting opening times of shops, hurts the urban fabric of many German cities, especially those of mid to small-size.
Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, Frankfurt and other larger German cities do indeed have a 24-hour shop called a Spätkauf or Späti for short (roughly translated as ‘buy late’). Yet compared to the 24-hour convenience stores of Asia, they are severely lacking in both quality of products and services offered and number of locations in a city. Furthermore, most German cities don’t offer this type of shop due to stringent state or municipal laws that prevent a private shop from operating for 24 hours.
This should change. Germany by no means should seek to transform itself into the sleepless megacities of Asia, but it can offer its cities the ability to bring citizens the convenience of 24-hour convenience stores and the beneficial side-effects that come with them. Allow me to quickly summarise some of the key benefits of 24-hour convenience stores.
These small shops in Asia provide denizens of a city essential goods at all hours of the day and night. Snacks, full meals, drinks, office supplies, socks, underwear, umbrellas and even parcel sending services can be accessed at convenience stores in Korea and Japan. Many of my fondest memories from my time living in Korea were at these convenience stores. In the warmer months they set up chairs and tables where shop patrons can relax and enjoy their snacks and drinks. In fact, the expatriate community in Korea calls this activity ‘marting’. It provides a cheap alternative to a more expensive bar and brings about a sense of community. People tend to run into their friends and neighbours at their local convenience store and engage in conversation.
Equally important is a key side-effect of having numerous 24-hour convenience stores spread around a city. Jane Jacobs’ ‘eyes on the street’ theory comes directly into play. That is, when residential areas and shops occupy the same area – instead of being separated into different zones of a city – there are always people (eyes) watching the street. When people are at work during the day, the shopkeepers are near their homes. Likewise when most people are sleeping, the shopkeepers and their patrons are observing the street. This discourages antisocial behaviour such as crime and vandalism in what would otherwise be an empty neighbourhood.
Germany has a much less dense population than Korea or Japan and it certainly does not need convenience stores placed every 15 metres as is common in Seoul or Tokyo. However, it should consider relaxing current laws to allow for this type of small business to enter the market. The services provided to urban dwellers and building of community would be coupled with more jobs, especially for youth and new immigrants.
Yet if Germany were to allow this market liberalisation (as they did in 2013 with private inter-city bus operator reform), they should strive to follow the East Asian model of organised, clean shops that cater to a wide variety of needs, not just alcohol and snacks as most German Spätis tend to do now.