Woolworth’s in Germany

The Woolworth’s chain was very much in the news in the run up to Christmas in the UK. Now, it seems, it is the turn of the German Woolworth’s to enter the world of financial turmoil. Last week it was announced that they had registered the company as insolvency – a step that is similar to filing for bankruptcy, whilst at the same time giving them a chance to carry on trading under strict conditions in the hope of finding a solution to their problems.

My first visit to a German branch of Woolworth’s (technically they are called just “Woolworth”) was in Kleve, near the Dutch border, and during my first years in Germany I was a frequent visitor to the store in Bad Homburg. However, in recent years I have rarely gone there except to buy things that I have not been able to get anywhere else. Indeed, the location at the top end of the Louisenstrasse – the main pedestrian area – means that it is somewhat off the beaten track if you are only in the town centre for a short time.

Possibly there lies the problem. Much of the media criticised the UK company as being modern enough, saying that the stores had not moved with the times. The German media has been making the same sort of claims this week, and yet the two companies were completely separate entities.

Whilst the Woolworths Group PLC in the UK had already split from the main US company in 1982, it took until 1998 for the German “DWW Deutsche Woolworth GmbH & Co. OHG” to follow suit. Since then the German company has modernised the cash desks and introduced new store concepts.

But this, it sadly seems, was just not enough.

One-way deposit bottles: Einwegpfandflaschen

Germany used to be really progressive in terms of recycling and deposit bottles.  Whilst the days of glass deposit bottles in the UK disappeared at the end of the 1970s, Germany still today charges a small deposit on plastic bottles.

The difference is that, when I first came to live in Germany there was only a deposit on recyclable bottles.  Recently, all that has changed.

Some years ago someone worked out that too many tin cans were being thrown away and not recycled.  The cans belonged in the so-called Grüne Punkt system – that’s usually the yellow rubbish bag or bin.  Too few cans were finding their way into the system and thus were not being recycled.  To combat this problem a deposit was introduced on cans and the had to be taken back to the supermarket.

This was thwart with problems.  Not all cans were affected – it depended on what was in them.  The cans could not be crushed, so you had to collect them in a good state and return them to the supermarket, who then had to store them to recycling.  And finally, there was no central system to recycling the cans.  Each chain or even shop required you to produce the receipt from when you purchased the can, and would only takes ones that they had sold back.

I remember once going away from the weekend and buying a can at a service station on the motorway.  I had to return it to that very same service station on the way back – on the other side of the motorway.  Of course, I had to prove that I had bought it there a couple of days before.

So in the end, a lot of supermarkets stopped stocking cans.  That’s another way of solving the problem, I guess.

The next stop was to put a deposit on non-recyclable bottles.  For some reason this deposit is higher than on the bottles that can be recycled.  Again, it took a while for a system to be agreed and until then every chain had their own system.

Even now, you can only return one of these bottles to a shop that sells that product.  So if you buy a shop’s own brand, then you have to return the bottle to them.  The machine that you put them into even scans the barcode to make sure of it!  If the barcode is missing, then the deposit is lost.

Which leads me back to my motorway problem.  Recently I bought a large bottle of a soft drink on a motorway service station.  To avoid any problems, I wanted to return it on the other side of the motorway on the return journey.

Do you think that they accepted the bottle?  Of course they didn’t – “we don’t sell that size of bottle here” was the answer.  They had the same drink on sale in a different size bottle.  (For some reason they wanted to tell me this in English as well, which didn’t go down well).

I insisted that I had purchased the bottle at their other store on the other side of the motorway, but they didn’t believe me.  “OK”, I said, “then I’ll go out to my car and fetch the receipt.  But if I do, and I’m right, then I expect you to accept the bottle and give me my deposit back”.  This did not go down well – a customer putting his foot down.  The cashier reached into the till and begrudgingly took the bottle and gave me my money.  Did they really think I was going to keep the bottle and take it back with me on another trip to the original side?

Queueing and Blogging

I went to the DIY supermarket at the weekend to buy a set of metal shelves for our cellar.  The shelves, along with their metal supports, were packaged into polythene as a set.  The whole thing was quite a weight to carry, so I made a direct line for the checkout…

Now normally this would not be a problem.  I avoid people that might be in my way, and those that see me coming with such a heavy item would probably make way for me anyway.  But not this week.  Just as I was reached the checkout a young lady stepped out in front of me… and stopped!  Although she didn’t want to go actually to the checkout, she stood in front of it and blocked my way.

I gave here a look that said “this is heavy”, to which she looked at what I was carrying and said “you could put it down!”, and then continued to hold a conversation with someone else.

I was so speechless, that I didn’t even think to reply with “you could get out of my way” or something similar.  I was just amazed at how blunt she was.

Which leads me nicely on to write about a new site where my wife started blogging today.  On AllThingsBritish.net she is doing the exact opposite of what I blog about here – namely writing about British topics in German.  Today, by co-incidence, she has written about how difficult it is in some British shops to know which way to join a queue.

Later this week she will also start blogging about words that have, at some time or other, caused us confusion or at least led to a topical discussion on EnglishWordsExplained.

So if you can understand German then please take a look at the new sites and give her some feedback!

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