Look to many of Europe’s big cities and the scene is much the same: high streets are dominated by major chains able to afford growing rents and favoured by local authorities as ‘anchor’ stores, while more characterful, welcoming and less predictable independent stores are being squeezed out. Lately, even the big store groups have started bemoaning competition from e-commerce, the speed and convenience of which is making much bricks-and-mortar shopping less and less appealing for many.
At least, that is the scene almost everywhere except in Germany. A study by the UK property company Savills this winter revealed that Germany’s retail sector is among the most resistant to the impact of e-commerce. The report found that prime rents in Germany have crept upwards, rising 13.4% on average over the past five years. Yet in the country’s six biggest cities, shops specialising in such diverse products as furniture, cosmetics, leather goods and fashion all fared especially well over the same period, with fashion seeing more stores open than close. And the most telling statistics? A quarter of those new stores were selling some kind of luxury goods, and a third of them were independents.
As the AngloInfo Berlin information site puts it: ‘There are a great number of chain stores in Germany… many of which can also be found throughout the rest of Europe. Unlike many other large economies, Germany and its principal cities are also home to a great many independent shops… from fashion to furnishings to stationery.’
The range of independents is certainly impressive, as is their status. Many have an international reputation and some have built on that reputation to become small chains operating across Europe: the Hamburg watchmaker and jeweller Wempe, for example, was founded in 1878 and expanded to Munich and then across Germany before setting its sights abroad and branching out internationally in 1980. Similarly long-established watch business Christ opened in Frankfurt in 1863 and is still a key innovator in the field, adding brands such as Longines, Rado and Tag Heuer to its roster as well as its own-label watches. Pletzsch, also a watch and jewellery retailer in Frankfurt, opened in 1897, while Rüschenbeck, an independent jeweller founded in Dortmund in 1904, has since expanded to Frankfurt, Cologne and Münster, among other cities. There are few flash-in-the-pan operations here, it seems.
If the shoe fits
The same independent spirit can be found in other sectors too, notably in fashion and especially shoemaking, which shares with jewellery a long history of traditional manufacture and retail in Germany. Other capitals across Europe may take the lion’s share of glory in terms of catwalk fashion, but it’s in Germany that craft and artisanal workmanship still thrive at the traditional brands. Even Germany’s smaller labels are well-known – and all the more appealing for not being found on every European high street.
René Lezard, for instance, was founded by Thomas Schaefer in 1978 in Schwarzach, making menswear, womenswear, and accessories, and has since set up stores in Munich, Cologne and beyond. Similarly, Gerry Weber, founded 40 years ago in Halle by Gerhard Weber, started out as a maker of women’s trousers but quickly expanded and by the 80s was sponsoring tennis player Steffi Graf. In 2006 the company made its first moves into menswear. There is a lesson here to be learned about not assuming that an independent retailer is necessarily small scale: Gerry Weber Group sales in 2009/2010 topped €620m.
However, it is in quaint side-street shops that the charm of German independent retail really flourishes. Visitors who appreciate the small-scale and traditional should visit the Berlin branches of Budapester Schuhe for the real deal. The company takes its name from the men’s brogue-type shoe made in the Hungarian capital since the 18th century and still produced to superlative standards today. Craft-making is similarly ingrained into the work process of German leather shoe label Heinrich Dinkelacker, founded in 1879 in Germany and now quietly ensconced at stockists across the country. Hand-made and built with longevity rather than superfluous trends in mind, Heinrich Dinkelacker shoes are as solid as oak and as elegantly crafted as anything from the ateliers of Paris. They’re just the kind of traditional style and quality that Germany’s independent retailers continue to specialise in – and they fit as neatly into a considered wardrobe now as they did in the late 1800s. Global conglomerates and fast fashion may dominate the 21st century, but in Germany tradition still thrives.