You think the school days are weird, check out the shopping hours

January 4th, 2011

We got into a bit of a grocery bind over New Year’s weekend; I hadn’t planned well for the long weekend and we were running low on a lot of things. Dashing out to pick up a few things on a holiday isn’t so easy in Switzerland: the opening hours of stores are strictly regulated. Typically stores are open from 8 am to 6:30 pm Monday through Thursday (to 7 pm on Fridays) and from 8 am to 5 pm on Saturday. In small towns many shops will close over the lunch hour – in my village the bakery and the grocery store are closed from noon until 2 pm – though in the cities this is less common. In Bern the groceries and bakeries remain open over lunch as do the department stores and most of the larger shops, but there are still small specialty stores – maybe an art gallery, a high-end jewelry store, an antique shop – that close for an hour and a half or two hours over lunch. Most businesses – and my most I mean pretty much everything – are closed on Sundays. The exception to the Sunday shopping restrictions are stores in the train stations, on the Autobahn, or attached to gas stations.

(This is an improvement over the shopping hours when I first arrived in Switzerland ten years ago. Then is was 8 am to 6 pm Monday through Friday and 8 am to 4 pm on Saturdays.)

In Switzerland, holidays are referred to as Sundays. This is important, because the Sunday shopping laws go into effect on holidays. And because by making the holiday a Sunday, it transforms the day before a holiday into a Saturday with Saturday shopping hours. For example: New Year’s Day fell on a Saturday. But because it was a holiday, it became a Sunday: all the stores were closed. Further, the day before New Year’s – Friday, when one typically can shop until 7 pm – became, legally, a Saturday, when the shops close at 5 pm. So over the New Year’s weekend, the shops closed at 5 pm Friday and did not reopen until 8 am Monday. (Which explains why R had to run to the grocery store in the train station in the city over the weekend.)

Banks, for reasons I have yet to discover, are closed all weekend. And often over lunch, even in the city. When, exactly, are people supposed to do their banking?

Museums are typically open on Sundays but then make up for it by closing Mondays.

When I used the library in the city it was open Saturday but closed Monday.

I’m a stay-at-home mom so I can work around all this, but you can imagine the burdens this places on a family where both adults work full time outside the home. And I can tell you: the last place on earth you want to be is in a Swiss grocery store in the hour before it closes for a long holiday weekend.

11 Responses to “You think the school days are weird, check out the shopping hours”

  1. Claudia on January 4, 2011 10:39 am

    That’s pretty similar to Denmark. Our laws are also complex and a bit mystifying. Stores are often open til 7 or 8 pm on the weekdays (though I never shop that late), and til 4 on Saturdays. Most stores are closed on Sundays except the first Sunday of the month when they are open for Saturday hours. There’s one store that’s open the first and last Sundays of the month. Why two back to back? Who knows.
    Fortunately, if a community has a small store locally, and is a certain distance from the more major stores, they can be open every Sunday. Even more fortunately, our local little grocery is open 7-7 every day, except holidays when their hours are just usually reduced. They’re totally closed probably two days a year.
    What kills me is the hardware/building supply stores. Close at 1 pm on Saturday, closed on Sundays. How are you supposed to do your home improvement and gardening? Madness.
    Don’t get me started on libraries. When are they ever open?

  2. Expat Mom on January 4, 2011 12:45 pm

    Here in Guatemala, the supermarkets close at 7. Used to drive me nuts! And the zoo in the capital does the same as your museums, open on Sunday, but shut on Monday. What odd hours!

  3. Tracy on January 4, 2011 4:18 pm

    I recently found your blog from After Words and have enjoyed reading about your experiences. I moved to Finland 4 months ago and have been dealing with very similar shop opening hours laws. Luckily, in early 2010, the laws changed slightly and some shops are now open on Sundays. The shelves are not restocked between Friday and Monday, though, so if you want fresh produce, bread, meat, etc., it’s best to go on Friday. We moved from a suburb of NYC where you can basically get whatever you want when you want it, so this has been an adjustment. Both my husband and I work, so this has been a challenge. I am also expecting in 8 weeks and trying to find time to buy all things baby is proving to be pretty difficult (and don’t get me started about the lack of baby products!). Our only real option for shopping at those kind of specialty stores is on Saturday from 9 – 3.

    And you are so right about the day before a holiday! I joke that it must be the last day that food will ever be sold in Finland. The stores are mobbed and people are crazy!

  4. Claudia on January 4, 2011 7:58 pm

    Welcome to Scandinavia! I imagine Finland is a lot more Eastern European than Denmark, but I really don’t know. But I recommend checking out for some things that are just not available. I am sometimes amazed at what I consider to be absolutely essential, and it’s just not found here.

  5. rswb on January 5, 2011 9:36 am

    At least restaurants and cafes are mostly opened on Sundays.

    Last year the people of Fribourg voted on whether they should extend Saturday opening hours until 5pm (currently 4pm) and they voted no.

  6. Jennifer on January 5, 2011 11:25 am

    @ Claudia We get two sunday shoppings a year, usually the two Sundays before Christmas, naturally. Do not EVER go to a toy store or toy department of a major store on Sunday shopping. Really. Ever.

    @ Tracy, thanks for commenting. Welcome to expat blogging!

    @ robyn – bern only went to 5pm, hm, maybe 5 years ago? It was definitely 4 pm when I first got here. I can’t believe they voted no. Actually, I can. That’s so Swiss.

  7. rswb on January 5, 2011 4:50 pm

    I think Reto voted no. We argued about it quite a lot, and then he was the only one who actually got to vote.

  8. Jennifer on January 6, 2011 10:39 am

    I think geo-politically Finland is Baltic rather than Scandinavian, right? And linguistically Turkic. Crazy Finns.

    Tracy – I remember doing the baby shopping. Yep, that took up all of many a Saturday.

  9. Jennifer on January 9, 2011 6:55 pm

    Robyn I just came back from having a little time to kill in Biel on a Sunday afternoon and the first 4 cafes I went to were closed!! I couldn’t believe it.

  10. Bethany on January 10, 2011 11:47 am

    Store hours aren’t too far off here, though a few stores are adjusting to be open over lunch. About a year after we moved here, they built a local shopping mall that is open both over lunch AND until 9 in the evenings. Unheard of! We’ve mostly adjusted to the inconvenience, but we’ve gotten stuck on long weekends without food in the house as well. One time, we had to drive around until we found an open bar to get milk for Sophie’s bottle… oops.

  11. Bring on the falafel! at Magpie Days on January 26, 2011 2:26 pm

    […] mentioned in this post how the shopping hours have liberalized oh so slightly since I first moved to Switzerland ten years […]

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