Germany is slowly reopening, but ‘people are afraid to come and shop’
BERLIN — When Caroline Kratzsch was finally able to reopen her elegant Berlin lingerie store Wednesday, her customers rushed in.
“They were waiting for us to open,” said Kratzsch, donning a mask before moving to assist a customer with lingerie in a dressing room at one of her three Körpernah boutiques in Berlin. “My employees even said we should hire more personnel.”
“Hold on,” she told them, quashing that idea quickly.
“We have to be cautious,” she explained. “Just because we had a great day doesn’t mean that everything is going to go well. No one really knows what’s coming in the future.”
Across most of Germany this week — depending on the state — small retail outlets resumed operations for the first time in more than a month, part of the country’s slow reawakening. The daily rise in infections of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, declined to less than 1% on April 9. That prompted the government to get the economy going again.
But the authorities are worried.
“We’re on the thinnest of thin ice,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told the lower house of parliament Thursday.
Also see:These U.S. states are loosening economic shut-down orders
The dilemma facing Germany and other countries is how to balance public health with economic need. Despite having the fifth highest number of COVID-19 infections in the world, the government is under tremendous pressure to reopen and quickly: small and midsize businesses generate about 70% of employment in the country, says Marcel Fratzscher, president of the German Institute for Economic Research in Berlin.
“The fear is that this will trigger another wave of infections,” he said.
Kratzsch’s cautious joy at reopening is a result of that dilemma and was echoed by other German entrepreneurs. They said they were thrilled to close the door on the surprise staycation and busywork, ecstatic to greet customers and make sales again. Yet all were clearly worried.
“We were doing so well before the shutdown,” said Anita Moseler, co-owner of !schmuck moseler und reichert, a bespoke jewelry store on Frankfurt’s historic main square, the Römerberg. “Then, suddenly, we had to shut down. Now we don’t know what’s going to happen. We don’t know if in four weeks we will have to shut down again.”
Moseler, meanwhile, recorded higher sales than usual for a Monday, the first day stores could open in the state of Hesse. That surprising start began tapering off as the week went by.
“We were so worried no one would come so we were thrilled that they did,” she said of Monday’s reopening. “Still, it was clear those customers that came were waiting for us to reopen.”
But she cautioned, “People could become insecure financially and about the future and only spend on what they absolutely need. We realize we probably won’t earn much in the near future – we just hope it’s enough to live on.”
Still, Kjello Torgard of Daytrip Shoes in the hip, touristy Kreuzberg neighborhood of Berlin remained sanguine about the lockdown’s devastating effect on the store’s balance sheet and the bleak outlook for this year.
“We haven’t had a lot of customers — we’re missing all the tourists that usually visit our shop,” said Torgard, who opened Wednesday. Tourists are 40% of the store’s client base.
“The summer doesn’t look too good — I don’t think tourists are going to come,” he added. “People are also afraid to come and shop. … They have lost their motivation to go shopping.”
Like Maria Weidner, a German-language teacher, who rarely goes out and is aghast at the loosening of lockdown rules. “The reopening, I really don’t like it,” she said. “Everything is full again, people are acting like everything is normal when it isn’t at all. It’s not any better now than it was at the beginning, two months ago.
“And the numbers [of infected people] are already rising — I think they are going to explode again,” she added. “I feel like if we had stayed closed just a few weeks longer, things would have been easier.”
But on a sparkling, warm spring Thursday, those strolling on the Kreuzberg strip of Bergmannstrasse said they were happy things were opening again, even if they didn’t want to shop. Instead, some took advantage of the sunshine by sitting on chairs left outside partially closed restaurants. Others strolled, savoring a gelato or munching on a Berlin favorite, the döner kebab. Few wore masks.
Outside of Hammett Krimibuchhandlung, a fixture of the neighborhood for decades, customers browsed through stacks of books displayed outside while others waited — mindful of social distancing — to enter the cozy shop, where its signature mysteries and thrillers take up every inch of available space.
Owner Christian Koch said business didn’t really drop off much during the lockdown, especially as mail-order purchases picked up the slack. But even so, things have changed.
“You feel it on people, [and] you feel it in the air,” he said, referring to the uncertainty wrought by the virus. “Some people like myself weren’t so affected. But others like the coffee shop on the corner have buckled.”
Still, he added, not every change has been negative.
“People pay a lot of attention now to their neighbors, to how they are doing, to how they can help them,” he said. “Things have changed, but not all of it is bad.”
Anastasia Schöck-Bochenski of the cocktail bar Fabelei, however, is desperately waiting in the wings for her turn to reopen — the end to all of this can’t come soon enough, she says.
She and her husband started their bar 18 months ago. After the lockdown, they scrambled to create a cocktail-delivery service for original creations such as the Pink de Blanc, a summery concoction with white rum, Peychaud bitters and Falurnum among its ingredients.
“We are doing OK — the delivery service is helping. It’s not nothing but we earn less than 5% of what we usually bring in,” she said. “To be honest, it’s better to be doing something than nothing.”
“But it’s not like a bar. We don’t even really talk to our customers; we just take the orders by phone and leave the drinks by the door — it’s so strange,” she added. “Our customers have been really supportive, though, ordering drinks, buying vouchers, asking how they can help. But we are afraid that this will go on too long and then a lot of businesses will die.”
The federal government is expected to meet April 30 to decide on recommendations for the next wave of openings. She hopes and prays the bar will be allowed to open in May, when schools, libraries and hairdressers are expected to come off lockdown in Berlin.
Kratzsch, meanwhile, is better positioned in the market — her first store opened 30 years ago, allowing her to accumulate a wealth of business acumen, market position and resources to weather a downturn.
Yet beyond the worries of the future or the joy at a great sales week, for her the most important thing was getting back to her business, to feel complete.
“I worked from home, but it’s not the same thing,” she said. “Being here, it just doesn’t feel like work to me. It’s something I love.”