What’s the matter with German “Einzelhandel”?

August 30, 2007 § 2 Comments

We have to start somewhere with my musings on approaching forms of interaction. Taken from my experience at German retailers let me ask the question: What is the matter with German “Einzelhandel”. As people are complaining about rising prices for butter and milk(-products), the more pressing question is why people are so shocked by price changes for such a rudimentary product as butter at all.

Hungry anyone?
I recently came back from the land of plenty – Japan- where the habit of eating butter and drinking milk is more of a recent development. The average price for a piece of butter is about 2 EURO (250 g) mostly salted, coming from Hokkaido region. Butter is a marginal food item in a country that has excelled at producing an enormous quantity of local goods – from all kinds of sweet bean paste candy to seaweed and buckwheat noodles, soba, udon… The fact is that many of these regional products are distributed on a national scale in any average supermarket. Choosing from more than 20 different kinds of fish, meat, cold cuts, chicken, ham and the like makes shopping for food a real experience. And I am only talking about “Life”-supermarket and not a fashionable luxury department store like Takashimaya. When you come back to German warehouse style retailers where boxes of goods are just piled up in the hallways, you ask yourself: What does it have to do with food?

German supermarket retailing seems to be focussed on the idea of “provision” or “supply”. Shopping is organized around a quick and low-stimulation procurement of goods that are heaved into shopping carts in the most efficient way. Even a tiny supermarket like the one around the corner, does little else than to provide packaged goods in two rows of shelves. Pick it up, put it in, pay, leave. The whole idea of shopping there is based on the assumption that your time is limited and if you can not choose from 3 kinds of butter, you are in the wrong shop. Obviously, people stick with what they know. Butter is such a sensitive issue because the classical German dinner consists of bread, butter, cold cuts and cheese. Only very liberal people would allow a tomato on their plate for the supposed health benefit. Consumer spending on food remains low in Germany as compared to other developed nations. And a brief glance at an average retailer explains, why a majority treats eating and food as a necessary evil that you better get done with before it becomes a pleasure.

Likewise, interaction with a shop clerk is limited to a brief “Guten Tag, Danke, Auf Wiedersehen” (Hello, Thanks, Good bye) as consumer and retailer are equally estranged – if not alienated – from the produce they handle.

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