Alsace meets every need of consumers

STRASBOURG – Public institutions coordinate to build a real common market between the two sides of the Rhine. Strasbourg and Kehl became the European laboratory of cross border consumption. Although there are still difficulties to implement it. Mainly because of the shopkeepers of Alsace.


Margot Perrier

Cross-border consumers are the perfect example of the “homo oeconomicus” from the third millennium. Consumers always find a way to pay less for their shopping bags’ contents. In Strasbourg, the French act the same and do not hesitate to cross Rhine to go to Germany.

This quiet ordinary movement of population within Schengen area is developed between the two regions of Alsace (France) and Baden-Württemberg (Germany). Thus 11% of citizens of Strasbourg’s expends is spent in Germany.

This rush on German shops has been studied by different public organisations. The purpose is to know more about this phenomenon. Mainly all economic actors want to help French consumers buying in Germany.

A region linked to Germany

“Transborder commerce has a good repercussion on regional economy,” explains Gerard Traband. This retired professor of geography wrote : “Erase the border?” in 2007. In his book, this former regional politician describes how important the cooperation between the two sides of the border is.

Alsace and Baden-Württemberg are more tied to each other than most of the French borders. Alsace have been part of Germany : 1971-1918 and 1939-1945. “Being from Alsace is difficult”. The past is still present. Local people in Alsace express that they are not German and at the same time they defend the local right (special regional law in this French region based on German history).

Consumers, pupils or workers… every one in Alsace can feel this connection with their neighbours. The fact that the French cross the Rhine to do the groceries has to become fixed in this common history.

Know Thyself

To understand the needs of these cross-borders consumers it is first important to know what we are talking about. So different regional politicians have ordered surveys in Alsace and Strasbourg for the last 5 years. Even the Regional Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CCI) created in 2009 an observatory of consumption.

According to this research, consumers from Strasbourg spent € Million 313 in Germany in 2008. Thanks to this survey, it is known what the consumers are looking for across Rhine. In fact, the consumers spend more money buying non food goods. That especially applies for cleaning products, tobacco and make-up.

In this survey all money spent abroad is called “flight of capital”. It seems that the acceptance of that phenomenon has its limits.

The population who crosses borders is from the middle class and from the working class. In the streets of Kehl, in the bus … the French consumers are mainly descendants of immigrants. Customers cut corners “to make ends meet” explains Samira, a French consumer who takes every week the bus with her children.

Expectations from the French consumers

More important, the surveys are also about the expectations of these consumers. The shops in Kehl don’t want to be opened for a mass consummation any more. It is essential for the German city to be sure that all French needs will be satisfied there. In fact it is a very targeted offer for a specific demand.

In 2007, more than 1 500 French consumers have been interviewed by the regional observatory of consumers. In this survey, 80% of the people explain that they go to Germany because of a better value for money. The consumers also express the problem of parking in Kehl and the traffic jam on the bridges. They admit that it is difficult to reach this Germany city.

Passerelle Mimram is built in 2004

This multiplication of surveys permits to act accordingly. The construction of the passerelle Mimram in 2004 for pedestrians is an example. Alsace has opened the access to the region of Baden-Württemberg by investing millions for cross-border infrastructure.

Yves, a French student, goes at least twice a week to Kehl to buy tobacco. He takes the bus in the winter. And when the sun is back he rather prefers wearing his rollers to go there through the passerelle.

All these projects are not all from Alsace. The new bridge for very fast trains (TGV), built in 2O1O, has been funded by Germany. It was one of the consequences of German bombings during the Second World war.

Bridges are very important because most of the people who cross borders take their car. But it is a problem. For example during a legal holiday in France, when shops are only opened in Germany, bridges are completely stuck.

Strasbourg is the main contributor to projects as bridges or new trains to reach Kehl and its shops. Mainly because the city is bigger and richer than its German neighbour.

Strasbourg on the left, the capital of Alsace. 273.000 inhabitants in the city, 639.000 in the suburbs. Kehl on the right, 34.000 inhabitants

A cross border tramway

In 2014, a tramway line will be opened between Strasbourg and Kehl. The regional actors want to improve the exchanges and help the French consumers to go there. This tram project has been built by the public transport’s company of Strasbourg : CTS.

It is the CTS which created nearly fiftyyears ago the bus line 21 (listen to the sound report). Created in 1962, it was by the time the easiest way to go to Kehl : after 20 minutes driving the bus stopped in the city centre of Kehl. It was also the cheapest : still now it is the same price as a normal bus ticket in Strasbourg : meaning 1 euros 40 cents.

But currently the bus is not enough to carry the 3.000 daily users of the bus. Generally there is two buses and on Saturday a third one is sent in the lap. In spite of this effort, the people who are using bus 21 on Saturday complain because of the crowd and the regular delay.

According to Misses Camille Janton, press officer at the CTS, the delays are a real problem : “I cannot lie : Strasbourg needs the Tram line as soon as possible. It is not a viable system with the few buses.” Till then the bus users will have to sweat themselves out.

On one hand Joël Merand – who is the bus driver for the line 21- admits the existence of a recurrent issue. On the other hand, speaking in the name of his colleagues, Joël refuses to integrate a fourth bus on Saturday: “it is going to change all our working conditions.”

Protection for the customers

Reaching Kehl is not completely easy but in progress. With all this buying, there are problems for the costumers. Most of the French consumers do not speak German and can sign contracts without understanding it. More often they do not get what is written on the packaging and then are badly surprised back home.

These consequences of cross-border consumption are described by the association of protection of the consumers : Euro-info-Conso. Since 1993, this bi-national association tries to help French and German consumers in the border region.

Its main purpose is to inform. They publish every year a booklet in French: “The guide for an European consumer : buying in Germany.” In it, the French consumers can find all information about the number of cigarets they can bring back in France, or where to pay the value-added taxes when they buy a car in Germany.

Kehl welcomes a European Centre for Consumer

Based in Kehl, the association has been recognised as useful by the European union. For that reason it is currently linked to the French and the German European centre for Consumers (CEC). It is the only region which welcomes a bi-national European organism to take care of cross-borders consumers. The European Commission has decided to associate it with Euro-Info-Conso because the association already knew the situation.

The European Centre for Consumers has a new hobby: defending the web consumers. The European centre for Consumers created two years ago a new job- a mediator for the victims of the web. To avoid a trial, the mediator tries to find a solution between the consumers and the seller.

Andrea Klinder performs in this job from the very beginning. This jurist is in contact with the consumers via internet. In two years, she has treated 500 cases and has solved 80% of them. Thanks to this proximity with the consumers, the CEC is able to discover the new rip off techniques on the web : “We need to be constantly on alert. When you found a swindling another one appears.”

Felix Braun is in charge of the “point de contact e-commerce” in the organisation. According to him danger exist for the cross-border consumers especially on the web. “When you’ve got different prices on the other side of the border it is normal that citizens want to take advantage of it.” The differences between two countries brings health to the border region.

Taxes borders

The difference between the French and the German taxes is the most important tool to explain the lower prices in Germany. For example, in France 80% of the price of a packet of cigarettes is taxes. Every time taxes increase, the tobacco sellers are scared to loose the market. Since the last taxes  have increased for tobacco, few months ago, the tobacco sellers in Strasbourg had to find other products to sell  such as groceries and drinks.

Pierre Bardet, president of the “Vitrines de Strasbourg”, a corporation of shopkeepers, found other reasons. According to him the prices are different also because of the packaging. “For example the packet of cigarettes is less expensive in Germany, but it is normal: there are only 17 cigarets in the German packet, the French one contains 20.”

The third reason is the most insidious. Some products are already been established on the French market and so they can increase the prices without losing the consumers. But in Germany the same product has to seduce the German consumer. It is the tactic of L’Oréal. The French company prefers to slash prices in Germany were there is more concurrence with other products.

Shopkeepers want to defend their position.

The shops are the most reactive to this campaign to help French consumers crossing borders.  Mr Bardet, expresses his fear with the new tramway line between Strasbourg and Kehl : “To be honest I am not completely satisfied. The tramway won’t bring much German consumers from the little city of Kehl.”

To avoid French consumers’ escape, the shops in Strasbourg have decided to stay opened during public holidays. For example last year nearly all shops in Strasbourg stayed open on Saturday the 8th of May. The German city of Kehl “scowled” adds Pierre Bardet, laughing like a child proud of his new trick.

According to him the most efficient reply is to “steal the German consumers to Germany.” To do so, he has invented the first magazine about Strasbourg in German published in Germany. “Bienvenue” is published four times a year. And the success is guaranteed : the number of German consumers increases the weeks following after publishing.

Strasbourg encourages its citizens to cross Rhine via new transport and via best information, “it is fair enough we squander in Germany,” says Pierre Bardet.

Every Saturday, the bus number 21 is full. Full of children with their mums, teenagers with their music and old people with their sticks. Most of the people are second- and subsequent- generation immigrants. Looking for some lower expends, they get into the bus to cross Rhine and buy products.

Samira is exhausted. She has her three years old son in the pram. She dreads the way back with all the packages, the pampers in a full bus.

Yves a young student already regrets his choice of  taking the bus today. He does not understand why the municipality of Strasbourg does not provide more buses.

Berthe – a retired woman – only does her groceries in Kehl. She can’t wait to see the new tramline and she complains about the buses packed with violent people.

Listen to their testimonies in the sound report: Bus 21

The people who are going by car to the city centre of Kehl open their shopping bag.

Franscesco and his 12 year old son Marco have been shopping. Although Francesco knows it is less expensive than in France, he complains because of the cost of the parking space. In the bag : washing powder / toothpaste / cleaning products.

Girl shopping for Justine, Fabienne and Jo. In their bags: cigarets / a party dress / a belt / a black top

Yves is from Strasbourg but studies currently in Berlin. He came with his mother and his sister. In the bag: tea/ shower gel / cereals / toothbrush / chewing-gum / deodorant / Easter decorations.

About Anouk Mentink