Walking the aisles

Bauhaus: The colossus of German retailing

During the Internationale Eisenwarenmesse in Cologne, Germany, a steady stream of taxis shuttled visitors from the convention center, across the railroad tracks and to a home center at 20 Istanbul Strasse. That’s where one of the biggest, latest, modern Bauhaus home center attracts customers from this ancient city on the Rhine.

Coming out of a cab, one visitor from China asked a reporter: “Did they allow you to take photos?”

Answer: Well, nobody said we couldn’t.

The store is a high-profile location of the chain launched in 1960 by Heinz Baus in Mannheim. The company doesn’t have the distinction of being Germany’s largest chain (that would be OBI.) But Bauhaus stores are the biggest. The Colossus of German retailing measures about 25,000 square meters — a whopping 260,000 sq. ft. — and lays out like a double-dog leg par 5, anchored at one end by the Stadtgarten garden center and the other by the drive-through lumberyard called the “Drive-In Arena.”

The first sign that you’re not in Kansas anymore: no blacktop in the parking lot. Instead, it’s a see of red paving stones. Another foreign accent is the bakeshop attached to the entry — the Bauhaus Bistro.

Once inside, things begin to look more familiar for the American visitor — right down to the orange signage and orange metal racking. (A visitor would perhaps find it curious to have an orange color scheme inside, but a red color scheme outside the store.) Some of the brands will make the visitor feel at home, too: For instance, an Energizer Battery Center endcap, Shop Vac, Skil power tools and a dominant display of Bosch power tools, which makes sense, given Bosch’s German roots.

Displays of Dremmel and the Fein Multi-Master are familiar as well. Metabo and Toolson by Bauhaus, not so much.

The 30-ft. ceiling throughout the home center allows for some aerial creativity, such as strung-from-the ceiling boats in the marine aisle and a double-decker display of doors. The ceiling also sets the stage for energy-saving skylights, extremely common among German retailers.

The sheer length of the store’s main arteries gives the appearance of endless home improvement options — certainly a strength of the store but also a weakness. Nothing this big can be an easy in and out for a time-pressed customer.

But it would be hard to improve on the organization of the store, which offers the feeling of different “neighborhoods” from aisle to aisle — from Der Stadtgarten to the Tischlerei (woodworking). If you have the time — and several attendees of the Internationale Eisenwarenmesse made the time — there’s plenty to see, and it’s often interesting and attractive.

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