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A German law protecting Sundays is forcing a supermarket chain to close even its robotic shops. But experts aren’t sure that’s sustainable

Who doesn’t love Sundays? The last day of the week can mean different things for different people—whether it’s time for laundry or for a good old Sunday roast.

In Germany, Sundays are sacred. The country considers them rest days, not just for people with white- or blue-collar jobs, but also for establishments (with only a handful of exceptions). Germans take the practice so seriously that Sundays are protected by the constitution.

Retailers have found a few ways around it, so consumers aren’t devoid of options on their rest day. Supermarket chain Tegut, for instance, has run automated stores without any human workers for the past four years.

But now, even those won’t open after a German court upheld a ban impacting Tegut’s stores—even those without human staff—forcing them to remain closed on Sundays. In December, it ruled that Tegut’s 40 automated shops will not be excluded from the Sunday rest law, or Sonntagsruhe, despite the absence of workers.


A member of Tegut’s management board, Thomas Stäb, described the move as “entirely grotesque” in an interview with the Financial Times, since the shops were more like “walk-in vending machines” than actual supermarkets. Business on Sundays also contributed to up to 30% of the shops’ weekly sales as few establishments are typically running.

German courts have made exceptions to the law, and relaxed some of its stricter impositions, which required shops to wind down by 6:30 p.m. on weekdays. One of the main arguments made by Germany’s service-sector union, Verdi, against the likes of Tegut’s automated shops is the need for guaranteed shopping- and work-free days for all.

However, one expert told Fortune that if new technology makes it possible for people to access goods on Sundays without requiring any human labor, that’s an opportunity worth tapping into.

“The law’s intention is rather that people should rest on Sundays. If technological innovations make it possible for people to buy individual goods without, conversely, other people having to work for hours to do so, the potential should be exploited,” Jan Büchel, an economist who specializes in digitization at the German Economic Institute, told Fortune.

He added that the court’s efforts to safeguard Sundays as an overall concept, as opposed to workers, seemed questionable. Another consideration when limiting the number of establishments that run on Sundays is that they are free to charge higher prices to consumers. But if those rules are relaxed, it may benefit cash-tight Germans.

“More alternatives to kiosks and petrol stations could create more competition and lower prices, which would benefit consumers. Whether consumers then buy individual goods on Sundays or prefer to take a complete rest would at least be up to them.”

a line of household products in a shop
a line of household products in a shop

The law will likely stay, but that isn’t so bad

Calls to reconsider the Sunday laws flare up in Germany from time to time, although contending with Catholic and Protestant church groups could mean a slimmer chance for changes.

The protection for Sundays has a strong religious influence, as it’s the day when Christians attend church. That’s why, years ago, judges ruled that commercial interests weren’t the only thing worth prioritizing. It’s also the day people get to spend with their family and friends no matter what they do.

To be sure, the Sunday regulations are subject to state law, which means each of Germany’s 16 states can choose what exceptions apply in their case, even pertaining to the automated mini-shops. So it may not be the end of all mini-mart operations on Sundays, as they can be vital to providing people with basic products, especially in remote areas and where workers are hard to secure, a representative at the German Retail Federation (Handelsverband Deutschland, HDE) told Fortune. 

In fact, in the German state of Mecklenburg–Western Pomerania, legislation specifically excludes automated mini-shops from the Sunday rule for the first time, the spokesperson said.

“In rural areas, automated markets can contribute to securing local supply and also to the equality of living conditions. Due to the reduced turnover, the opening of automated markets on all Sundays of the year is crucial to the economic viability of these concepts,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

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