Sunday trading laws are outdated: They hurt us consumers in our wallets

Adrian Pepper
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If you woke up early yesterday morning and thought it might be a good time to get the weekly shop done, you would have had to forget it. Sorry, this is England. If you want to go shopping, move to Scotland, where big supermarkets like Sainsbury’s open early and stay open until 10pm on a Sunday night.

The restrictions on the English visiting shops bigger than 3,000 square feet at any time on a Sunday have only been lifted for a 12 week period in 2012 – and that was to cater for the tourists who had come to watch the Olympics. That experiment revealed a nation of people embracing their freedom to shop where they wanted, when they wanted. Retail turnover increased more outside London than in the capital itself. And nobody complained at the shops being open.

This month marks 20 years since the first (but not full) liberalisation of Sunday trading hours. But society has changed so fast since then that the restrictions imposed on big shops by the Sunday Trading Act 1994 look absurd. You can order goods on your tablet, and have them delivered to your home anytime of day. But you are only allowed in these big stores for six hours in the middle of a Sunday.

Hundreds of thousands choose to work on a Sunday in England. The only people who are legally protected are shop workers. Most work anyway, stacking shelves or picking products for online customers, or working in small format stores. Outside the six hours that large shops can open on Sundays, many of the big supermarkets’ customer service centre staff can be found tweeting their apologies to shoppers for not being allowed to open for longer.

Meanwhile, shoppers are forced to pay significantly higher prices in the small format stores. If you pop out for a bottle of Echo Falls Chardonnay to have with your Sunday lunch, it will cost you £10.99 in a Tesco Metro compared to £6.99 in a Tesco superstore. An Open Sundays survey conducted in June revealed prices in Tesco Metro were 11 per cent higher on average than in a Tesco superstore, while a Sainsbury’s Local charged 7 per cent more on average than a Sainsbury’s superstore.

No wonder big chains are happy with the status quo. By investing in small format stores, they can profit from the restrictions on Sunday opening. It’s the customers who pay more. And as they spend a higher proportion of their income on food and drink, families on lower incomes are hit disproportionately hard.

Further, liberalising opening hours on a Sunday doesn’t need to hurt family life. In fact, it would make it more convenient. Gone are the days when mum got the shopping done on weekdays; in most families, mum and dad both work Monday to Friday, as do single mums and dads. Liberalisation of opening hours would free time on a Sunday to spend with the family – whether seeing a football match, going to the cinema, or going to church.

Online retail has given people the freedom to shop anytime at the click of a button. Is it too much to ask to give people the same freedom to shop anytime, but in the old fashioned way?

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