DREIEICH, Germany — There is no greeter at the door or bagger at the checkout, and the "Wertkauf" sign towering over the parking lot offers no clue that the giant store in this Frankfurt suburb is among the newest members of the worldwide family of Wal-Mart.
As the world's No. 1 retailer takes on Europe's No. 1 market, the merchandising missionaries of Wal-Mart have discovered they are best advised to go slowly in confronting German consumers with their ardent friendliness and their price-is-paramount credo.
Germany and its 82 million bargain-starved residents may be an alluring target for the Arkansas-based empire as it finally makes its way to Europe. But German shoppers are arguably a trickier lot than their counterparts in Asia and Latin America--foreign fields that Wal-Mart International has already invaded.
Wal-Mart Germany was created last year with the acquisition of 21 huge "hyper-markets" from the Wertkauf retailing group, and its presence was bolstered early this year with the purchase of 74 of the Spar food group's biggest grocery outlets.
The company has also begun a move into Britain. In June it announced an agreement to buy the 229 stores of Britain's third-largest supermarket chain, Asda Group, for a reported $10.8 billion in a bid to undercut that country's food prices--among Europe's highest.
Germany, known for customer service that ranges from indifferent to surly, poses a retailing challenge all its own.
Major retailers are bound by the same restrictive labor laws that prevail throughout the country, making it impossible or prohibitively expensive to fire any employee. In grocery stores, where customers must bring or buy their own bags and pack up their purchases themselves, cashiers glare at those who bag too slowly, and have been known to angrily sweep unpacked wares back into the cart.
Short shopping hours, narrow aisles and high prices fixed by competition-stifling industry agreements are other elements of the status quo that conflict with the Wal-Mart outlook, but they too are being tackled with caution.
The frenzied shopping culture that results from early closing hours means those plowing through the doors after work are seldom in a mood to chat with a stranger.
"As a German, I find the idea of being greeted at the door uncomfortable. I would feel astonished if someone I didn't know started talking to me," said Martina Menz, managing supervisor of the Fleishman-Hilliard public relations firm that handles Wal-Mart publicity in Germany, explaining why the German outlets have yet to install the company's trademark greeters.
"We can't go 100% here like we do in the States. We have to work up to it gradually and do the things first that will work here," said Heinz Miller, the son of a U.S. serviceman and a German woman who left his Wal-Mart job in Dallas last year to impart company philosophy to his new associates in the country of his birth. "German customers are in more of a hurry than Americans. They want to get in and get out."
Although customers may be rushed by rigid retail laws that mandate closure by 8 p.m. weekdays, 4 p.m. Saturdays and no shopping at all on Sundays, the German stores are already accounting for some of the highest sales volumes in the Wal-Mart empire. The store in Karlsruhe, which was Wertkauf's headquarters, is the busiest Wal-Mart on the planet, despite being open for business each day for fewer than half the 24 hours of many Wal-Marts in other countries.
Wal-Mart declines to disclose whether sales have risen since the company took over from Wertkauf, whose product names and logos have been phased out in favor of Wal-Mart brands, in-store advertising and "Thanks-for-Shopping-Wal-Mart" grocery bags.
One loosening of the shopping strictures Wal-Mart proudly claims as its first major achievement is the decision to open its doors two hours earlier across Germany--breaking ranks with retailers who routinely began the business day at 9 a.m., even though the infamous Ladenschlussgesetz, or shop-closure law, allows commerce to start at 7.
"It's nicer to come in when it's not so crowded," said Cornelia Adler, a regular shopper who has three young children she ferries to school and activities later in the day. "The prices are lower and the clerks are friendlier than in other stores. If you ask for something, they don't just send you off to look for it yourself with vague directions."
Prices in the German stores still operating under the names Wertkauf and Interspar have already been lowered by about 5% through mass-purchasing and administrative economies, and the goal is to bring them down 10% on average throughout the stores, said Manfred Lange, manager of the Dreieich Wal-Mart.