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Opinion and Analysis For Members

OPINION: Why Germans' famed efficiency makes the country less efficient

Brian Melican
Brian Melican - [email protected]
OPINION: Why Germans' famed efficiency makes the country less efficient
Do Germans stop and smell the roses? Not if they're quickly pushing them through to the check-out, as pictured with this customer at a gardening store in Bremen. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sina Schuldt

Germans are famous for their love of efficiency - and impatience that comes with it. But this desire for getting things done as quickly as possible can backfire, whether at the supermarket or in national politics, writes Brian Melican.

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A story about a new wave of “check-outs for chatting” caught my eye recently. In a country whose no-nonsense, “Move it or lose it, lady!” approach to supermarket till-staffing can reduce the uninitiated to tears, the idea of introducing a slow lane with a cashier who won’t sigh aggressively or bark at you for trying to strike up conversation is somewhere between quietly subversive and positively revolutionary – and got me thinking.

Why is it that German supermarket check-outs are so hectic in the first place?

READ ALSO: German supermarkets fight loneliness with slower check outs for chatting

If you talk to people here about it – other Germans, long-term foreign residents, and keen observers on shorter visits – you’ll hear a few theories.

One is that Germans tend to shop daily on the way home from work, and so place a higher premium on brisk service than countries where a weekly shop is more common; and it is indeed a well-researched fact that German supermarket shopping patterns are higher-frequency than in many comparable countries.

Bavarian supermarket

A sign at a now-famous supermarket in Bavaria advertises a special counter saying "Here you can have a chat". Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Karl-Josef Hildenbrand

Another theory is that, in many parts of the country (such as Bavaria), supermarket opening hours are so short that there is no other way for everyone to get their shopping done than to keep things ticking along at a good old clip.

The most simple (and immediately plausible) explanation, of course, is that supermarkets like to keep both staffing and queuing to a minimum: short-staffing means lower costs, while shorter queues make for fewer abandoned trolleys.

German love of efficiency

Those in the know say that most store chains do indeed set average numbers of articles per minute which their cashiers are required to scan – and that this number is higher at certain discounters notorious for their hard-nosed attitude.

Beyond businesses’ penny-pinching, fast-lane tills are a demonstration of the broader German love of efficiency: after all, customers wouldn’t put up with being given the bum’s rush if there weren’t a cultural premium placed on smooth and speedy operations.

Then again, as many observers not yet blind to the oddness of Germany’s daily ‘Supermarket Sweep’ immediately notice, the race to get purchases over the till at the highest possible rate is wholly counter-productive: once scanned, the items pile up faster than even the best-organised couple can stow away, leaving an embarrassing, sweat-inducing lull – and then, while people in the queue roll their eyes and huff, a race to pay (usually in cash, natch’).

In a way, it’s similar to Germany’s famed autobahns, on which there is theoretically no speed limit and on which some drivers do indeed race ahead – into traffic jams often caused by excessive velocity.

Yes, it is a classic case of more haste, less speed. We think we’re doing something faster, but actually our impatience is proving counterproductive.

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German impatience

This is, in my view, the crux of the issue: Germans are a hasty bunch. Indeed, research shows that we have less patience than comparable European populations – especially in retail situations. Yes, impatience is one of our defining national characteristics – and, as I pointed out during last summer’s rail meltdown, it is one of our enduring national tragedies that we are at once impatient and badly organised.

As well as at the tills and on the roads, you can observe German impatience in any queue (which we try to jump) and generally any other situation in which we are expected to wait.

Think back to early 2021, for instance, when the three-month UK-EU vaccine gap caused something approaching a national breakdown here, and the Health Minister was pressured into buying extra doses outside of the European framework.

This infuriated our neighbours and deprived developing countries of much-needed jabs – which, predictably, ended up arriving after the scheduled ones, leaving us with a glut of vaccines which, that very autumn, had to be destroyed.

A health worker prepares a syringe with the Comirnaty Covid-19 vaccine by Biontech-Pfizer. Photo: John MACDOUGALL / AFP

Now, you can see the same phenomenon with heating legislation: frustrated by the slow pace of change, Minister for Energy and the Economy Robert Habeck intended to force property owners to switch their heating systems to low-carbon alternatives within the next few years.

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The fact that the supply of said alternatives is nowhere near sufficient – and that there are too few heating engineers to fit them – got lost in the haste…

The positive side of impatience

This example does, however, reveal one strongly positive side of our national impatience: if well- directed, it can create a sense of urgency about tackling thorny issues. Habeck is wrong to force the switch on an arbitrary timescale – but he is right to try and get things moving.

In most advanced economies, buildings are responsible for anything up to 40 percent of carbon emissions and, while major industrials have actually been cutting their CO2 output for decades now, the built environment has hardly seen any real improvements.

Ideally, a sensible compromise will be reached which sets out an ambitious direction of travel – and gets companies to start expanding capacity accordingly, upping output and increasing the number of systems which can be replaced later down the line. Less haste now, more speed later.

The same is true of our defence policy, which – after several directionless decades – is now being remodelled with impressive single-mindedness by a visibly impatient Boris Pistorius.

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As for the check-outs for chatting, I’m not sure they’ll catch on. However counterproductive speed at the till may be, I just don’t see a large number of us being happy to sacrifice the illusion of rapidity so that a lonely old biddy can have a chinwag. Not that we are the heartless automatons that makes us sound like: Germany is actually a very chatty country.

It’s just that there’s a time and a place for it: at the weekly farmer’s markets, for instance, or at the bus stop. The latter is the ideal place to get Germans talking, by the way: just start with “About bloody time the bus got here, eh?” So langsam könnte der Bus ja kommen, wie ich finde…

READ ALSO: 7 places where you can actually make small talk with Germans

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Comments (3)

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Anne 2023/05/24 18:48
There must be a German word for the German checkout experience.
Jeff 2023/05/24 17:06
I was an exchange student in Heidelberg in the 1970s -- before big business took over just about everything on the Hauptstrasse. It was much friendlier then...except for the government bureaucracy which was neither friendly nor efficient. But having just become German citizen, I must tell you that has also changed...for the better.
Martin 2023/05/24 11:09
In a country riddled with burocracy, mindless rules and poor digitalization, I can't see how the phrase "Germans are famous for their love of efficiency" makes any sense. It's been quite the opposite in my experience.

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