GERMAN CONSUMERS PAY DEARLY FOR "PROTECTION'

GERMAN CONSUMERS PAY DEARLY FOR "PROTECTION'

''Hello, we are Land's End, direct merchants from America!'' begins the chatty advertisement in German magazines for the U.S.-based mail-order house for clothing.

A few months ago, those ads - featuring photos of Land's End jackets or shirts - offered German consumers a money-back guarantee on all items that they buy through the catalog house.That's the same no-questions-asked guarantee that Land's End extends to customers in America.

But not in Germany, a nation where ''consumer protection'' is often a thinly-disguised way to block free commerce in goods.

Over the past two years, a German consumer group - Center for the Fight Against Unfair Competition - has battled Land's End all the way through Germany's court system to stop it from offering the money-back guarantee unless the product proves to be defective.

And this summer, Germany's highest court let stand a lower court's decision: that the unlimited Land's End guarantee was illegal because it amounted to a gift to consumers, which is forbidden by German law.

Is this to the consumer's benefit? Or is it simply benefiting German retailers who don't want head-to-head competition with Land's End?

The dispute is hardly an isolated one in Germany, where big retailers have been whining incessantly this year about the onslaught of the U.S.-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc. It bought out a chain of German discount stores in 1998 and is rapidly turning them into consumer-oriented shopping centers.

Instead of changing their strategies and offering better deals than Wal-Mart, the entrenched German retailers have been criticizing the American interloper. The German media picked up the theme, with a national newspaper at one point publishing a cartoon showing a gigantic killer whale (''Der Wal-Mart'') hunting down placid dolphins marked with the names of Germany's leading retailers.

So far, Germany's shoppers have been courting that killer whale - ignoring the German retailers' whining and flocking to the new stores to find better deals. The dolphins may be cuter, but they charge too much.

Part of Germany's problem is that many of its laws governing retail sales and related matters have roots in the 19th century. It doesn't matter that they are outmoded and anti-consumer; they are part of retail tradition.

Take the case of Germany's ban on Sunday shopping, a sop to retail-clerk labor unions that dates from the days when dads worked and moms stayed home and shopped during the week.

In many of today's German families, both parents work, and they only have time to shop in the evenings and on weekends - when it's hard to find an open store. Opening German shops on Sunday would be a boon to retailers, because German families like to stroll through downtown areas or shopping centers on Sunday afternoons and window-shop. If they could buy then, they would.

But they never get the chance. So far, the German government has strictly enforced its blue laws, except when it comes to stores in or around train stations or airports. In many cases they are exempt from the rules.

In Berlin, the Gallery Kaufhof department store tried an experiment this summer by opening its doors on a Sunday afternoon. In five hours, an estimated 50,000 shoppers showed up at outlet near the former East Germany's commercial center, Alexanderplatz.

The response? Berlin's government fined Kaufhof about $25,000.

In another case involving an American company, the Unfair Competition organization - which represents about 1,500 German companies, including many retailers - accused American Express Corp. of anti-competitive behavior. American Express wanted to allow its credit-card customers to earn frequent-flyer miles based on the amounts they charge.

Like the Land's End case, the complaint by the Unfair Competition group prevailed in the German court system. But American Express has taken the case to the European Union. The company is contending in Brussels that it is Germany's consumer laws - rather than incentives offered by AmEx and other U.S. companies - that are anti-competitive.

In yet another case, the U.S.-based Value Retail chain, which specializes in fashion outlet stores, was ordered recently not to build a planned shopping center in Bavaria. The reason? Locals contended that Value Retail's low prices would hurt the area's German retailers.

If you look at the other side of the coin, those low prices would have been a boon to long-neglected German consumers, who for too long have paid the price of subsidizing high-cost, weak-service local stores.

Now that Wal-Mart is in the German game, its strategy of low prices and customer-friendly service is likely to shake up the nervous German retail establishment. And that's they way it should be.

So when the German equivalent of ''Attention, shoppers!'' rings from the loudspeakers at the Wal-Mart stores, maybe the German retailers as well as bargain-hunters should pay attention.

For German consumers need more incentives, and - if German retailers are incapable of giving them - the laws should be changed to allow American competitors to give shoppers what they want.