"No lines, no crowds": Germans stay home as stores reopen

BERLIN (Reuters) - German consumers are counting their pennies rather than returning to shop in large numbers as stores gradually reopen after being locked down during the coronavirus crisis, the national retailers association said on Wednesday.

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Europe’s largest economy allowed stores of up to 800 square metres (8,600 square feet) to open again from Monday, along with car and bicycle dealers and bookstores, provided they adhere to strict social distancing and hygiene rules.

On Wednesday, larger furniture outlets were also allowed to open in the western state of North Rhine Westphalia, such as 11 stores of Swedish chain Ikea [IKEA.UL].

“It was very relaxed, there were no lines, there were no crowds,” said Stefan Stukenborg, head of an Ikea branch on the outskirts of the western German city of Cologne.

The HDE association said the mood among shoppers remained very subdued due to concerns about jobs and finances. “Consumers are in a crisis mode, consumer sentiment is in the doldrums,” a spokesman said.

Germany’s government is trying to mitigate the effects of the shutdown on the economy with a range of measures, including a 750 billion euro ($811.95 billion) rescue package, and hopes consumer demand will return to help it out of a sharp recession.

Ikea is counting people as they come in and out to make sure it does not have more than 640 shoppers in the store at one time. It has put up protection screens for staff offering assistance and closed its childcare and restaurant areas.

Staff can wear face masks if they want to but don’t have to, and Ikea has put signs on the floor asking shoppers to maintain a 1.5 metre (4.9 ft) distance from each other.

Germany’s confirmed coronavirus cases increased by 2,237 to 145,694, data from the Robert Koch Institute for infectious diseases showed on Wednesday, marking a second consecutive day of new infections accelerating. The reported death toll rose by 281 to 4,879, the tally showed.

The HDE has criticised the decision to only allow smaller stores to open in most of Germany, calling the move confusing for customers and saying both large and small shops were capable of respecting social distancing rules.

Large stores such as Ceconomy's CECG.DE consumer electronics chains Media Markt and Saturn have cordoned off a smaller sales area to meet the 800-square-metre rule, with staff bringing customers what they want from the rest of the store.

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

Germany’s lockdown took effect on March 17. The government says social distancing rules will remain in force until at least May 3 and aims to start re-opening schools the following day.

Reporting by Matthias Inverardi and Reuters TV, writing by Emma Thomasson; Editing by John Stonestreet, William Maclean