German teacher Renate Grasstat helps foreigners navigate the brutal task of shopping for clothes in Germany.
Buying clothes seems pretty simple these days. You just go into a store, pick a few items, try them on and pay. Theoretically, that is.
In practice, there are, in spite of the supermarket-like appearance of the stores, these obtrusive salespeople, who – in a country not really famous for being polite – dash forward and ask, “Kann ich Ihnen helfen?” (Can I help you?).
They have changed the way they put this original sentence, too, and become really inventive, as I have noticed throughout the years. “Kann ich Ihnen behilflich sein?” (Can I be helpful to you?) or “Brauchen Sie Hilfe?” (Do you need help?) are some variations, maybe more reserved in their intention, but certainly giving the air of some kind of disaster, which buying clothes is not. Hopefully.
The latest, trendy phrases seem to be: “Sie kommen zurecht?” (You can manage…?) or “Sie finden, was Sie suchen?” (Did you find what you are looking for?) – indicating that they are just waiting, in the unlikely event that you really might need some help. Obviously, this is the reaction to unhappy faces or even complaints from customers who felt bothered by the constant observation and unnecessary questions.
The usual answer to them is: “Danke, ich gucke nur!” (Thank you, I am just looking – the g pronounced as k here) or “Nein, danke” or even just “Danke!” – pay attention to your tone if you want to show you are annoyed.
How to express yourself in German whilst shopping
I am aware that my own annoyance is, of course, a cultural thing. Some readers of this column may think, What’s wrong with offering assistance? Coming from an English-speaking country, you are probably used to much more friendly support while shopping.
On the other hand, I know that in many shops in the UK you would not be asked; in the US, assistants might ask but stay in the background, ready to help if you really needed them. And, these famous garment shops for young people – everybody knows them so I won’t name them – can do without it, thanks to globalisation among the younger generation, I guess. In Germany, salespeople are more obviously “observing” and pro-active selling than really wanting to help. But never be cross with them: they are only following orders from their superiors, probably being observed them themselves!
In a big, well-known shoe store, I tried on a shoe, feeling observed the whole time. When I raised my head, an elderly lady stood in front of me, trying to make herself indispensable by pointing to the side saying: “Hier haben wir auch einen Spiegel!” (Here, we have a mirror!) The mirror was the size of a whole wall, about 4 square metres, and I was sitting right in front of it. There was no way I could have avoided noticing it, even if I had wanted to. This is, to me, extremely obtrusive, but I do not know if this is a “German” view.
Now that you know that Germans can feel like victims while shopping, I hope it might be easier to deal with. But what can you say when you really need help?
Useful shopping phrases
–Ich suche… (I am looking for…)
–Welche Größe ist das? (Which size is it?)
–Haben Sie das auch in…? (Do you have this in….?… name another colour or another size, see below.)
–Was / Wie viel kostet das? (How much is it?)
–Kann ich das anprobieren? (Can I try this? – You will be shown the umkleidekabine or led to the anprobe, both words used for fitting room)
–Wie kann man das waschen? (How can I wash it?)
–Kann man das bügeln? (Can you iron it?)
–Das passt / nicht. (It is / not / the right size)
–Das ist zu eng. (too tight)
–… zu weit (too loose)
–… zu bunt (too colourful)
–… zu lang (too long)
–… zu kurz (too short)
Usual German sizes (unless S / M / L etc. which is quite common in Germany already):
36 38 40 42 44 46 48…
(from very small to large)
48 50 52 54…
However, if you want to buy a suit, there are several different numbers referring to different body types, like stout and small, very slim and tall etc. Here you definitely need the help of an assistant!
From about 36 for adults up to 45 or even more, not corresponding one to one to numbers in other countries: 39 for instance is – more or less – corresponding to 6)
For childrens’ shoes always try and find some help.
Understanding German replies
–Das steht Ihnen sehr gut! (This looks very good at you!)
–Das sitzt doch wunderbar! (It fits very well!)
And if you feel somehow this is not the truth, as I do sometimes, you can just answer:
–Das gefällt mir nicht! (I do not like it!)
But, as we are approaching the happy ending of our shopping tour, let us have a sentence for confirming the deal:
–Das nehme ich!