BONN — For more than half the weekend, West Germany is a shopper's wasteland. Stores are closed at 2 p.m. Saturday and are not reopened until Monday morning.
In Italy, there is the post-lunch break. Most shops are closed for a couple of hours in the afternoon.
In England, it is legal to buy a newspaper on Sunday but not a book, to shop for fresh fruit and vegetables but not the same foods if they have been canned or bottled. And throughout the country, a complicated and varying patchwork of local laws and traditions forces shops to close for one weekday afternoon.
In France, you can buy fresh bread on Sunday mornings but, as if in retaliation for having to be open on the Sabbath, some small shopkeepers close on Mondays.
For Americans, accustomed to shopping day and night, seven days a week, in department stores and supermarkets, the hours kept by shopkeepers in Western Europe can be confusing and, if something is needed in a hurry, even distressing.
But times are changing in Europe, and along with them the hours of shopping. Under pressure from consumers, many European cities are liberalizing their shopping hours, relaxing the rules that determine when the stores may legally do business.
The fight to bring this about has not been easy. There has been opposition, sometimes bitter, from retailers' associations, small shopkeepers and unions of salespeople. These interest groups see no reason to extend their hours. In some countries there has also been opposition from church groups, which insist that the Sabbath should not be marred by the distractions of shopping.
Restrictions on shopping in West Germany are probably the most severe in Western Europe. Shops throughout the country must be closed daily at 6:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, and at 2 p.m. on Saturdays except for the first Saturday of the month, which is known as "Long Saturday." On Long Saturday, shops may stay open until 6 p.m.--and they are invariably jammed with shoppers.
But under pressure from consumers, a law was enacted last summer that allows later hours for shops situated near railroad stations in cities of 200,000 or more.
Even before the law was changed, about two dozen shops in Stuttgart, in the underground mall known as the Klett Passage, kept their doors open until 10 p.m. on the grounds that the shoppers they attracted prevented the area from becoming a haunt for undesirables.
Their move had the support of Mayor Manfred Rommel, son of the late World War II Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, but the West German Retailers' Assn. challenged the shopkeepers in court.
The issue has been resolved by the new law, and the public seems pleased. A recent poll found that 96% of the people questioned were in favor of keeping the Klett Passage shops open late.
Hamburg recently allowed shops to stay open late for a trial period, and residents there found it to their liking, too. A woman on the street displayed some towels she had just bought and said: "It was after 7 p.m. when I bought these. Finally, I can shop without pressure."
In Hamburg and Stuttgart, the merchants who stayed open later reported a sharp increase in sales.
"We have doubled our daily average in the past two hours," said Klaus Rugge, who runs a silverware and gift store.
In the Netherlands, a law that would extend store hours is before the Parliament. It would permit shops to stay open until 7 p.m. on weekdays, and this would enable many people to shop after work. Storekeepers would be allowed to choose their own opening times, with a limit of 52 hours a week.
At present, Dutch stores may stay open until 9 p.m. one night a week, and the operators of stores close to the West German border often advertise this fact in German newspapers.
In Austria, the Ministry of Trade, Commerce and Industry is trying to liberalize business hours against the opposition of the retailers' association.
Switzerland also has relaxed its rules. Stores there may now stay open until 8 p.m., and some, in the larger cities, until 10 p.m. one night a week.
In Sweden, new laws have made it possible to shop until 11 p.m. in the larger cities. By and large, storekeepers may set their own hours, yet few are open on Sunday.
In England, shops may legally stay open until 8 p.m., and until 9 p.m. one night a week.
But in most towns and villages, and even in some local shopping districts of large metropolises such as London, the institution known as "Early Closing Day" frustrates shoppers for at least one weekday afternoon per week.
In the western town of Bath, for instance, shops close for the day at noon on Mondays and Thursdays. In Stratford-on-Avon, Shakespeare's reputed birthplace, early closing day is Thursday only. So unpredictable is the system to strangers that the Michelin Guide lists the days affected for each locality.
As in other European countries, store hours in Britain were set in order to protect small shopkeepers from competition and their employees from exploitation.