Germans stormed their high streets and shopping centres on Monday to stock up on Christmas presents before non-essential retailers are forced to close on Wednesday.
Hours after regional leaders agreed a radical lockdown until at least January 10th, German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier said the looming measures to slow the spiralling Covid-19 pandemic would “curtail life like never before” in modern German history.
“The coming weeks are a test for us all,” he said. “But parties can be held again, and friends and relatives will be delighted to get presents later. What counts now is keeping people healthy and saving lives.”
Even before shops opened, queues formed on Berlin’s Kurfürstendamm shopping boulevard on Monday morning, with similar scenes in other cities.
Many reported brisk trade, comparable to a Saturday afternoon and not a Monday morning. By mid-afternoon one Hamburg shopping centre closed its doors, leaving a long queue outside. Pharmacy shelves in the capital were picked clean by 4pm even though they will remain open along with supermarkets, off-licences, post offices and pharmacies.
“It’s madness, really,” said one cashier in Berlin’s Schöneberg neighbourhood. “People are glad to have some notice but I think announcing a shutdown like this will backfire: it brings out more people and will cause more infection, not less.”
Need versus want
Anticipating the rush, federal economic minister Peter Altmaier urged people on Sunday evening not to lose their heads.
“I hope that people will only get the necessities,” he said, “what they really need.”
In Berlin’s KaDeWe department store, blurring the line between need and want, 14 people queued outside the Louis Vuitton concession while four people shopped inside – at 10.30am.
“I absolutely need a small bag for my girlfriend,” said Frank, a 35-year-old designer.
Around the corner 12 people waited outside the Nespresso coffee capsule shop while surrounding cosmetic stands were thronged. Outside the nearby Apple store, 30 people waited patiently in the crisp winter sun.
As shop owners stuck up makeshift “Sale” signs, the HDE retail lobby group sounded the alarm for its sector. For many of its non-food members, the last month of the year contributes about a fifth of total annual earnings.
Now they are likely to lose about 60 per cent of their December trade, or €12 billion in lost sales.
Lockdown came early in Saxony, where infection rates double the national average prompted the state government to order non-essential retail to remain closed on Monday.
In Dresden and Leipzig, as in other cities, frustration is building that an earlier lockdown was rejected by Germany’s 16 state leaders until an emergency meeting on Sunday.
“We live for the last two weeks of the year, so not having that buffer means we don’t know if we’ll survive next year,” said Tim Strauss, a toy shop owner in Leipzig. “Doing this so close to Christmas is a shot in the neck for small traders.”
That frustration over the timing, and confusion over the measures, was a common complaint, too, in hairdressers. Many are working 14 hours to see as many clients as possible before Wednesday.
Among those with explaining to do on Monday was federal health minister Jens Spahn.
Last September he said it was a mistake to have closed shops in the spring. Asked on Monday why Germany was doing just that, he said the “dynamic nature” of the virus spread made the lockdown necessary.
The problem was less the shops themselves, he said, but the journey there through busy shopping precincts.
“We could have come to these decisions earlier,” he conceded. “The third wave began before the second had really passed.”