The liberalisation of Sunday trading hours, expected to be announced in the Budget today, is a timely response to the way in which Sundays have changed in the 21 years since shopping hours were last reformed in 1994. Sundays remain a day of leisure for most of us, and our leisure time is enriched by the fact that there are attractions to visit, events to attend, and pubs and restaurants are open.
We already shop online at any time of day on a Sunday, clicking and collecting, or taking a delivery at home. The government has bought the argument that it is not unreasonable to let us buy at any time from a shop where the goods are actually on physical display.
The restriction to six trading hours between 10am and 4pm on a Sunday for stores of over 3,000 square feet in the 1994 Sunday Trading Act was a sop to the convenience sector, which feared losing market share to the big supermarkets. Now many of those convenience stores have been bought up by those same big supermarkets. The latter are making better margins by selling goods at convenience store – rather than superstore – prices. Lacking choice on Sundays, consumers are being forced to pay more than they should or stay away.
An Open Sundays study has shown just how bad this problem has become. We found that a weekly shop would cost you 11 per cent more at a Tesco Express than a Tesco superstore, and the increase is 7 per cent for Sainsbury’s and its Local stores. In some cases, the price gap is much wider. A packet of branded pasta, which cost £1 in a Tesco megastore, was priced at £2.19 in a nearby Tesco Metro, a 119 per cent price increase.
The experiment of opening larger stores on Sundays during the Olympics showed British shoppers taking to extended opening hours in droves. According to the ONS’s retail figures, in September 2012, there was a 3.2 per cent year-on-year increase in retail sales compared to just 1.6 per cent in the next month when restrictions came back into force. Outside London, the rise in sales was significantly higher at 6.2 per cent.
Contrary to the claim from some convenience stores that they need to preserve their monopoly at restricted times on a Sunday to survive, no economic study has found evidence that the 1994 Act contributed to the decline in small independent shops. Smaller shops in shopping centres that are clustered around bigger shops have seen increases in footfall and will continue to do so. Numerous second and part-time jobs will continue to be created, while shop workers should retain their right (protected in law) not to work on a Sunday. An independent study has estimated future liberalisation to be worth £20.3bn to the economy over 20 years.
Elected local mayors and councils will have the final say over whether to let bigger shops open in their areas on a Sunday. Many will find it hard to resist the overwhelming pressure of public opinion. Poll after poll has found that at least two thirds of people want full liberalisation of Sunday trading hours. Shopping hours in Scotland have been fully liberalised on Sundays for decades. Which English or Welsh mayor is going to deny their citizens the same freedoms as the Scots?