Saturday, July 24, 2010

German Paper Clips, Books, and Three-star Restaurants

Today I went out to buy some paper clips. They were €1,49 (more than $1.75) for a small box of 100. Now you might think paper clips are paper clips, but most German ones are different. These Hansa brand clips have a heft to them that the ones I normally get from Office Depot in Nashville don't have, and they hold together my writings almost as well as a staple. It's a small thing, the heft and resistance of a paperclip, but here and in many other obscure corners of German daily life, we find preferences that value quality as highly as price.

My €1,49 purchase helps pay for the generous worker benefits at the Hansawerke factory outside of Hamburg and for the value of patronizing my friendly local office supply store. I could take a bus out to Staples and get cheaper clips, I'm sure. But I like the subtle heft; it feels like Germany to me.

Customers don't always have a choice to save money or not. Germany has legal, structural constraints that favor small shops and higher quality products. I wrote previously about store opening hours. There are also stringent laws governing the timing and depth of discounts for store sales. And in the book trade, retailers generally have to sell at the suggested retail price, the same as the little corner store down the street.

At the same time, there is a pronounced German cultural propensity to be thrifty (Günstig) and to downplay socio-economic inequalities. Take fine restaurants, for example. Carter Dougherty reports (in a 2008 New York Times article) that Germany now has more three-star restaurants (9) than any European country except France. But such high-end dining is a bargain in Germany: these restaurants charged about half (circa €$150) of what a similar full menu in France would be. Dougherty reports that upper-end diners' sense of justice and fairness would be offended at higher prices. (My wife and I like Michelin-starred Vau in Berlin, which offers its succulent neo-German cuisine in €12 portions at lunch.)

Thus, we find both structural constraints that favor small producers and vendors as well as deep-seated cultural notions of equality and solidarity that produce the particularly German paradox of thrift and a willingness to pay a premium for quality and positive social externalities.

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