Germany Reopens Stores in Global Test Case as New Virus Cases Closely Watched

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A sign with distancing rules is seen in the sport store PUMA, as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in Berlin, Germany, April 25, 2020
A sign with distancing rules is seen in the sport store PUMA, as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in Berlin, Germany, April 25, 2020Credit: REUTERS/Annegret Hilse/File Photo

The eyes of the retail world are on Germany, the first major Western economy to start reopening bigger stores.

Companies large and small, which have been hammered by the COVID-19 pandemic the world over, are eager to see how consumers respond as they emerge from lockdown. Are they too worried to go out shopping, or primed to unleash pent-up demand?

Global chains including H&M, Adidas, IKEA and Puma are trialling pandemic procedures which will also be used in other markets. 

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Issues include how to keep customers at a safe distance apart, with changing rooms a particular headache. Also how best to protect staff and disinfect surfaces, among other questions.

Concerns remain in Germany about the coronavirus' reproduction rate and the government has signalled it would roll back loosened restrictions if there is an uptick in new infections. 

The novel coronavirus reproduction rate in Germany is currently estimated at 0.76 on average, the head of the RKI public health authority said on Thursday.

The number is one of several indicators authorities are watching when deciding on loosening coronavirus restrictions for the public. Public health experts say that an R number of 1 or above would make it impossible to loosen.

A number of 0.76 means that, on average, 100 people infected with Covid-19 infect 76 other people. This would mean the number of new infections would come down over time.


Early signs show some cause for optimism in Europe's biggest economy, which allowed stores of up to 800 square metres (8,600 sq feet) to open again last week provided they adhere to social distancing and hygiene rules.

Germany's IfW economic institute said within days shopper traffic in major cities bounced back to about half of what was usual for this time of year. The HDE national retailers association said stores made about 40% of their normal turnover. Most customers are respecting distancing rules, according to HDE, which is lobbying for all stores to be allowed to reopen next week.

"I think they should open many more of the shops," said Marius Fahner, shopping at Berlin's central Alexanderplatz. "You need to give people the chance to live their lives and that can only happen if the shops are open again."

Tesfom Ghebreab, manager of German sportswear brand Puma's flagship Berlin store, said he was pleased to be back at work but it was hard to get used to wearing a paper face mask all day, changing it every few hours, and plastic gloves.

The store saw more than half its usual daily number of shoppers in its first few days open, he said, reinforcing the IfW findings.

"We definitely miss the tourists but it has been better than expected so far. Loyal customers are saying it is nice to be able to shop again and have been buying more," Ghebreab told Reuters as a steady stream of customers tried on sneakers.


Running and training gear is proving especially popular as customers try to keep fit during the lockdown, which is still partially in force, with yoga leggings almost sold out, Ghebreab said.

The store has moved clothes rails further apart so there is more space in the aisles and staff are disinfecting handles and rails every two hours.

They are encouraging people to pay by card if possible to minimise handling cash and physical contact, and giving customers shoes from the storeroom to try on rather than from the display.

Customers are offered masks and gloves. Only a handful of people are allowed to enter the store at a time, with others asked to wait outside or move to an upstairs floor.

Sportswear rival Adidas, which has reopened 20 stores so far in Germany and is in the process of opening another 20, said it would be influenced by what it learns in its home market as it gets back to business around the world.

On Monday, Chief Executive Kasper Rorsted said customers have been returning to its reopened stores in China but they have not been buying as much as before the crisis. He declined to comment on trade so far in Germany.


Swedish clothing giant H&M, which saw global sales plunge 46% in March after it closed most of its stores, is gradually reopening in Germany, its largest market, but said the environment remained challenging.

It has kept changing rooms open, but is cleaning them more often and does not have staff handing out tags for numbers of garments. It is also offering an extended return period to discourage too many customers from trying clothes on in-store.

IKEA is benefiting from the fact that Germany's western state of North Rhine Westphalia has already granted an exemption to the store-size rule to furniture chains. It is counting people as they come in and out to make sure no more than 640 shoppers are in the building, to comply with the government limit of one customer per 20 square metres.

It has also put up protection screens for staff and closed childcare and restaurant areas.

Media Markt, part of Europe's biggest consumer electronics group Ceconomy, has only opened one floor of its three-floor Berlin store so it can comply with the 800 square-metre rule.

"For the rest you tell the shop assistant what you want and they bring you what you want," said shopper Richard Breitengraser. "Necessity creates creativity."

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