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Restrictive shopping laws imposed in the 1930s could have left Germany trailing as e-commerce breaks down the borders of international trade.

The 1932 Free Gifts Act and the 1933 Discount Act were originally imposed in days of soaring inflation to protect consumers from retail ‘bribes’ and defend small businesses from undercutting by bigger rivals.

Ironically, German shoppers today enjoy some of the cheapest prices in Europe, but the laws have come under attack from the EU and international mail order firms who are being hampered in their attempts to break into the German market and risk breaking the law by offering substantial discounts and ‘two-for-one’ offers which would be quite legitimate in their own country.

And last week Michael Fuchs, president of Germany’s association of wholesalers and exporters, said the legislation belonged to “the rubbish heap of business history”.

The legal risks were highlighted in the Antiques Trade Gazette’s Internet Handbook 2000, but with e-commerce sales set to soar from DM2.6bn (£807m) in 1998 to an estimated DM100bn (£31bn) by 2002, it appears economic pressure will finally force a rewriting of the rules in time to coincide with the EU’s directive on e-commerce which comes into force next year.

It seems certain that shop opening hours will also change. At present, most stores in Germany close at 4pm on Saturday until Monday.

Werner Müller, Germany’s economics minister, admitted the current laws left the country at a commercial disadvantage. “An intelligent regulatory policy is important to a country’s competitiveness,” he said.