If you happened to be a tourist in Italy ending up hungry and tired late in the evening after a wonderful day visiting myriad basilicas and cathedrals, then you had better be prepared to be content with the feast your eyes have enjoyed. Your stomach may have to go hungry until late the next morning when a shop selling bread and cheese is finally open.
In laid-back Italy, regulations have been so strict that they dictated when and for how long shops of all kinds, selling groceries to computer parts, could be open. On a weekday, it would not be uncommon for a visitor to see empty streets and shuttered shops during mid-day. Some of these streets would have again been promptly closed before nightfall.
In Italy, such regulations often protected shopkeepers from competition and gave them more time to spend with their families. But the leisure of the shop owners came at the cost of inconvenience to consumers. Tourists often grumbled about not being able to shop or hangout in the night. Young mothers with babies in hand complained that they were not able to buy milk at will. Shopkeepers themselves, immigrants in particular, who wanted to keep their shop doors open a little longer to earn and send a few more euros to their loved ones living afar expressed frustration.
The shopping regulations are symptomatic of Italy’s woes. Most often, regulations in Italy favored a few at the cost of hampering the labor force’s productivity and efficiency. And these problems never surfaced in the go-go years of the mid-2000s. But now that Italy is fighting to initiate a wave of growth to address concerns over the mountains of debt it has accumulated, many ugly demons are rising from below the ground.
But this has not deterred Italy’s spirit to fight back. The country’s new technocrat prime minister, Mario Monti, has come out with a plan aptly titled ‘Save Italy’ to address some of his country’s economic ills. One of his ideas in the plan takes a direct aim at the local rules that restrict the operating hours of Italy’s shops. In late December, Monti cut loose those regulations that shackled the entrepreneurship of his merchants by announcing that shops, restaurants and bars could stay open for even 24 hours a day, including Sundays and other national holidays.
This indeed is a small revolution in Italy, where workers fight tooth and nail to preserve their privileges. But as in every revolution, winners and losers emerge. On the one hand, cheering the 24×7 shopping rules are the enthusiastic immigrants and the big retail chains ready to keep their shops open around the clock for more business. But on the other hand, small mom-and-pop store owners, who have to put in more hours to compete with the others, despise the new rules.
Both sides have not hesitated to air their views. In an interview to AFP, Pietro Giordano, general secretary of the consumer group Adiconsum, cheered the new rules saying “we think it is the future and that it will allow greater competitiveness, to the benefit of consumers”. But Enrico Rossi, the president of the Tuscan Region lambasted the new rules saying that consumerism was not the right response to the crisis and termed the new rules “an insult to our cultural identity, out traditions and our history”.
The new economic paradigm has also set into motion a set of complex politicking. Local authorities, who have reveled at their power to regulate their respective regions, are also angry about Mr. Monti usurping their traditional powers.
But Mr. Monti is undeterred by any of these criticisms. He has given a 90-day ultimatum to the different regions of Italy to fall in line and bring their regulations in accordance with his plans. Notwithstanding what Mr. Monti’s shopping rules could achieve, the new rules are a strong message to both Italians and to the world that Italy will make tough decisions to get its house in order.
Meanwhile, if tourists venturing to Italy’s small towns find a bar to quench their thirst late in the night, or a jewelry shop in Verona open on Sunday, they have only Mr. Monti to thank.
Postcards from Around the World
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