On the Seventh Day

The thorny issue of retailers trading on a Sunday in the United Kingdom reared its head again recently. The government has taken consultation on the issue of whether or not to increase trading hours on a Sunday and is expected to introduce new legislation shortly to extend opening hours on this day.

Traditionally Sunday has been viewed in the United Kingdom and elsewhere as “a day of rest”: for workers, traders and shoppers. This harks back to ancient times, where religious conventions tended to dictate the behaviour of citizens and society. In the past century and in many countries, right up to today, trade unions also have had a powerful influence on the issue of trading on a Sunday – particularly in Europe.

In 1994, The UK changed the legislation and allowed retailers with floor space of over 3,000 square foot, to open for six consecutive hours between 10am and 6pm. This was a contentious issue with many interest groups such as religions and workers arguing vociferously against this move.

However it probably fell in line with what was happening with regard to people’s lifestyles and behaviour at that time. In the area of sport for instance, Saturday was always regarded as the “sacred” day for matches and events. This began to changes in the 1990s with major sports shifting some of their most attractive games to a Sunday. The English Premier League, Rugby Union cricket being to the forefront in this regard. People’s leisure activities also changed. Many viewed Sunday as a good day to “chill out” and get away from the pressures of work. Shopping became an attractive proposition for many and since the 1990s Sunday has proved in broad terms to be popular with shoppers – particularly at critical times in the year such as the lead-up to Christmas.

What happens elsewhere in Europe? Interestingly in major economies such as Germany and France, we have seen a more restrictive and conservative approach to this issue.

Sunday as “a day of rest” has been built into the French constitution since 1906 – a legacy of the socialist tradition. It is only in 2015 that the French government has begun to loosen the restrictive legislation on trading hours on a Sunday and is allowing limited opening hours in so-called “international tourist zones” in Paris. Areas such as the Champs-Elysees and Monmartre are a good example where many tourists visit and some find it surprising to day the least that stores are not open and available for business. Some out-of-town shopping malls are also being considered for more liberal opening and closing hours of business. The power of the unions has also influenced policy-making in this area over the decades. The present French government, hit by a poorly performing economy, see more liberal trading hours on a Sunday as an opportunity to stimulate employment growth and generate more revenue.

Germany also has been quite restrictive in its approach to Sunday trading. It introduced legislation in 1956 which gave limited retail sectors permission to open. Only four Sunday’s in the year could be used for trading. However both federal and regional policy makers (Landers) can apply different approaches. For instance Bavaria, which has a strong Catholic ethos and a strong union presence has been influential in restricting the opportunities for trading.

Despite the secularisation of countries in Europe and a drift away from people practicing religious behaviour, we still see a conservative approach in many countries in Europe.

What are we to make of the pending legislation in the UK to further liberalise trading hours on a Sunday?

In the 1990s we did not have online shopping. This phenomenon has mushroomed in the past decade and more importantly provides the shopper with “24/7” access to shopping. No bureaucrat, legislator or religion can prevent shoppers from engaging in such an activity at any time or day of the week.

For many people, shopping is about leisure and socialisation and getting away from the mundane aspects of the working week. It is a form of therapy for some. Is it not inevitable that we will see even greater liberalisation in this area of Sunday trading?

The proposed legislation in the UK still provides workers with the right to opt out and if victimised, they can take the offending retailer to court.

We arguably live in a “flexible world of work”. People increasingly work on zero or part-time contracts. Many are transients i.e. between jobs or careers. For instance retailers make plentiful use of students and older people to staff their outlets. These individuals are not necessarily seeking permanent and pensionable positions with such retailers.

We live in a mobile and multi-cultural age. People travel more and as noted earlier can find it infuriating to see shops closed on a Sunday.

What’s not to like about this move to more liberal trading in a Sunday?

Over to you!!

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