Natural Born Bargain Hunters – The German Obsession with Price
Spring is a strange season in Germany: it is the only time of year when there is no major sale in the shops. The winter sales, the “Winterschluss-verkauf”, end in early March – while the summer sales, the so-called “SSV”, can start as early as June, depending on when the kids go on holiday.The autumn sales meanwhile, advertised as “Herbstaktion”, stagger on until Christmas. It is as if Germans will only reach into their pockets if they are guaranteed a 40 per cent discount. But spring is different, that is when Germans have to resort to their well-tried savings habits.
Take my friend and neighbour Rainer. He is 69, retired now, but still a successful businessman. There are three cars outside his house, all BMWs because that way he gets a discount. Every other Saturday he takes one of the BMWs to the Bahlsen biscuit factory, a 40 minute drive across Berlin. There he buys broken biscuits (The German slang for this is “Kekse 2”). I have some sympathy for this – in the early 1960s, my parents used to take me to the Bahlsen factory in Hannover-Linden, and I remember the sweet baking smell waffing down the street. That was the era when people still saved string, influenced by wartime and post-war shortages.
The shame has gone
This saving mentality never really disappeared and it is being activated again, not just because it is spring, but because the financial crisis has made people realise that money is scarce. Germany, says the consumer-sociologist Kai-Uwe Hellmann, has Europe’s tightest profit margins in the retail trade.
Since 1945, the Aldi chain for example has been catering for the many Germans who do not care about fancy advertising or top brands. When you shop in Aldi you pull the no-name potato crisps out of a brown cardboard box because the shop is cutting prices by doing without shelf-fillers. No-one pretends this is a sensual experience. The company was set up by the brothers Karl and Theo Albrecht (“Aldi” stands for Albrecht-Discounter) and from the beginning they have been organised so that you can buy with your eyes closed. Coffee is on the left near the entrance, then comes jam, then biscuits – just over from the aisle from wine. The two brothers, who became the richest men in Germany, split the country in two because Karl did not want to sell cigarettes in the Aldi chain. Karl took over the southern regions and banned tobacco; Theo took the north and sold cigarettes.
For years, Aldi was a synonym for poverty. Then it became clear that the middle class was buying there, stacking food, drink and household cleaning materials into bags from more fashionable or pricey shops. The financial crisis of 2008 changed even this little subterfuge. The shame has gone, driven away by the absolute imperative to live more cheaply.
The trend is all too obvious in my well appointed Berlin street. It’s not just Rainer buying broken biscuits. One neighbour is a regular visitor to the lost property auction organised by the Berlin transportation system. He has an obsession with umbrellas. In the 1960s it would have been no problem to find a craftsman to repair his broken umbrella; now he buys them cheaply at auctions ten at a time. But the repair-culture is in any case flourishing. Tailors are booming across the country.
In the cities at least so are DVD-player and mobile phone repair workshops: two years ago they would have been thrown away if broken. And what the Germans call “Schnäppchen jagen” – bargain-hunting – has become a natural past-time. The English hunt foxes (or would like to), the Swedes hunt elks and the Germans hunt Puma training suits with 30 per cent discount. A family in our street used to plan their returns from the annual ski holiday, so that they could spend a few hours in the Adidas factory at Herzogenaurach – giving them time to buy bargain-priced sports shoes for their children. This year, there was no skiing holiday.
There is then a pattern: Germans are naturally inclined to save rather than spend money and in a crisis feel guilty about any kind of spending that could be deemed luxurious. Is this miserliness or good housekeeping? Careful use of money was always seen as a German virtue (“Tugend”); in the Middle Ages men selected their wives for the ability to give birth to healthy heirs and for their talent in running the family budget. Sometimes one wonders whether similar principles still apply. As for miserliness – “Geiz” – that is no longer seen as a vice. An apparently effective advertising slogan for a media company in German, selling electronics at relatively cheap prices is: “Geiz is Geil! Or: mean is sexy. Of course it is in no way “geil”, but it is respectable.
Part of the genetic make-up of the nation
“This obsession with price is typically German” (“Diese starke Fixierung auf den Preis ist typisch deutsch”,) says the sociologist Hellmann. The French are ready to give out more money on good food, the Italians and the Spanish trust and cultivate their corner shops which are more expensive but more personal; the British dismiss discount shops as working class.
Here then is a psychological explanation of why it is so difficult to change Germany’s economic policies. The government has been under pressure from the US and other partners to stimulate domestic consumption rather than just rest on its laurels as Export World Champion (or at least Number Two to China). Spend more, buy more, import more! say Germany’s critics. The recovery of Europe hinges on Germans spending more in their shops. But will it happen? Probably not. Sparsamkeit is not just a German virtue – it seems also to be part of the genetic make-up of the nation. They are even beginning to convert me: broken biscuits taste just as good as the intact version, and are half the price.
is Germany correspondent for the London daily newspaper "The Times". He has been living in Germany for twenty years and is author of the column "My Berlin" in the "Tagesspiegel". In his book "My dear Krauts" he describes the peculiarities of everyday life in Germany with typical British humour.
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
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