BONN -- Andrea Schneiders, 22, is a frustrated consumer in one of the most prosperous countries.
She complains that she has to do all of her shopping on Wednesday afternoons, when she gets off early from her job as a gynecologist's assistant, or on Saturday mornings.
The reason: a 31-year-old West German law requires virtually all of the nation's stores to close by 6:30 p.m. weekdays or 2 p.m. on most Saturdays. On Sundays, it obliges them to close all day. "We have hardly any time to go shopping," Schneiders said of herself and her husband.
During her time off from work, she said, "I have five minutes for myself, and then I quickly have to go shopping." She often pays higher prices than she would prefer, because she has little time to hunt for bargains.
Schneiders and her boss, Dr. Edda Seibicke, agreed that stores should stay open until 9 p.m. during the week. Seibicke joked that she "would be slimmer" if she did not hire someone to shop for her, because she would never have time to go to the grocery store.
Extensive restrictions on shopping, which govern price discounts and advertising as well as store hours, have made West Germany the anticonsumer society.
The store-closing law "makes it very difficult for working women or for families who want to shop together," Thomas Schlier, chief spokesman of the Consumers Union Organization of Germany, said.
When stores are open, it is often futile looking for bargains. Storewide sales, where prices are cut across the board, are outlawed. An exception is made for two-week sales for seasonal products, once each summer and winter.
The nation's powerful retailers' lobby will stop at little to avoid price competition. It pushed a law through parliament last year forbidding stores to put signs in windows or ads in newspapers saying how much they had reduced prices during the sales.
One shoe company found a way around the ordinance. It published a "political" advertisement saying, "These offers are forbidden: 50 percent off on summer shoes!"
Salesmen cannot offer discounts of more than 3 percent to individual customers. Car dealers occasionally send out "spies" who persuade rivals to knock off 10 percent from the price to make a sale. The offender then is turned in to the authorities and made to pay a fine.
Many of the restrictions on shopping have drawn criticism from the U.S. government, the International Monetary Fund and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Washington, which has been pressing Bonn for more than a year to do more to encourage economic growth, would like to see regulations eased to make it easier for West German consumers to spend their money.
Robert Heller, a governor of the U.S. Federal Reserve Board, called on the Bonn government this month to allow stores to open on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.
"The Germans have the money. They earn it. They just have to spend it more," Heller told a West German radio station.
But most Germans are satisfied with the rules, even though it makes their lives more difficult. The advertising and pricing regulations, for instance, seem to satisfy a national desire for orderliness.
"For Germans, and this is probably a typically German characteristic, we want to have clarity in prices. We want to be sure that the price is the same for everyone," Michael Baron, a consumer affairs expert of the free-market-oriented Free Democratic Party, said.
A leader of the opposition, left-of-center Social Democratic Party defended the law against mark-down advertisements.
"The consumer was being tricked by those price comparisons, where the 'old' price was often invented in heaven," Renate Schmidt, a deputy faction leader of the party, said.
Defenders of the pricing laws also are quick to point out that West Germany has one of the world's lowest inflation rates. Prices actually fell slightly last year.
An unusual alliance between labor unions and store owners supports the shop-closing law.
The unions want to prevent the workweek from being extended and to keep bosses from hiring parttime employes who might resist joining unions. The owners, especially those of small shops and of downtown stores, fear competition in the evenings or on weekends from large stores in the suburbs.
Defenders of the laws contend that, if the rules were changed, stores would raise prices to cover costs of staying open longer. Clerks and other employes also would have less time to spend with their families, they say.
"We Germans are more concerned with qualitative growth than with this perpetually consumer-oriented society seen in the United States," Karl Schiffer, spokesman of the union of commercial, banking and insurance employes, said.
"The costs produced by longer hours would be loaded onto the consumer. It certainly would not mean that more money would be spent," he said.
The government, after years of debate, is planning to modify the store-hours law -- but only slightly. It plans to permit shops to stay open until 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. one day each week. Stores would open later, or shut earlier, on another day each week so that there would be no change in the total number of hours when stores are open.
The law frequently leads to situations that seem absurd to Americans accustomed to all-night shopping. On Sundays, some auto and furniture dealerships open so that customers may browse, but it is forbidden to draw up any sales contracts or make down payments.
Gasoline stations, which are permitted to stay open around the clock, have become informal -- and technically illegal -- convenience stores. They stock beer, wine, milk and ice cream, even though they are not supposed to sell those products after grocery stores close.
The law does allow "Long Saturday," the first Saturday of each month, when stores can stay open until 6 p.m. Stores also open on weekends during the Christmas season.
Another exception is made for bakeries and flower shops, which can open briefly on Sundays. Pastries and bouquets are popular gifts when Germans visit friends or relatives.
Retailers find ways to get around the law against storewide sales. For instance, across-the-board discounts are permitted when the store is being remodeled. Stores in this country seem to be remodeled more often than in the United States.