Sunday Trading: an open and shut case

Whether we think the seventh day should be a day of rest or we find it a terribly convenient day to catch up on our weekly shopping, most of us have benefitted from Sunday trading at some point since it was introduced back in 1994.

But have you ever wondered why on a Sunday you might drive past a giant food superstore to find it closed, only to catch sight of a smaller branch of the same supermarket further down the road that’s open? Well there’s a reason, and it could all be about to change…

Hours not to reason why

As things stand, smaller shops in England and Wales are allowed to open all day on a Sunday, but shops over 3,000 sq ft are restricted to six consecutive hours between 10:00 and 18:00. This gives convenience stores and smaller outfits an obvious advantage, or perhaps makes up a little for the fact that they can’t open 24 hours a day like the big stores. As it stands they can catch the early morning and Sunday evening trade. Hands up if you haven’t ever needed to pop out for that much needed pint of milk on a Sunday evening?

But many independent shopkeepers and small businesses could become unviable if proposals announced in the Chancellor’s Budget in July go ahead.

What does the Chancellor have in store? (groan)

In short, the government wants to give mayors and local authorities the power to relax Sunday trading hours if they feel it might boost economic activity in the local area. Councils would be able to create special zones where longer opening hours could apply.

George Osborne has put forward these proposals after larger stores and supermarkets were allowed to open for longer on Sundays during the 2012 London Olympic and Paralympic Games. Why? Well, he believes there’s a “growing appetite” for Sunday shopping; with the rise of online shopping, more and more retailers want to be open for longer at the weekend.

That doesn’t sound so bad, does it? Perhaps not. And the statistics that they’ve been bandying about aren’t too off-putting either – two extra hours of Sunday trading could create nearly 3000 jobs and generate more than £200m a year in additional sales in London. But increased sales for whom, exactly?

As ever, here at Simplify the Law we’re concerned about the interests of small businesses. So just how will the new rules affect independent shopkeepers?

A retail of two cities

The Chancellor has also acknowledged that this won’t be suitable for every area, which explains why he’s opting to devolve the power to local authorities – to let them decide for themselves whether or not it will help their local economy. Allowing local authorities to set Sunday opening hours will undoubtedly lead to inconsistencies and confusion for both businesses and shoppers. Different authorities will end up deciding different things. In one (hopefully) far-fetched scenario, we could end up with zones being created that mean shops on one side of a high street are open, while those on the other are closed. More realistically, a small retailer with premises in two parts of a town might have to manage shops with different opening hours.

One way around this could be to have the same rules applying everywhere. And if this seems too simple and obvious to Mr Osborne, perhaps he could introduce a definition of a zone and what it comprises, so that the proposals are not so open to interpretation and potential abuse.

And would sales actually increase anyway?

This is a point that can be argued either way until the cows come home (from their new Sunday shopping trips). It’s certainly arguable that sales would just become spread over more hours, and move from the smaller shops to the larger ones. And if, as predicted, out-of-town malls and shopping centres are given longer opening hours, already struggling high street businesses are likely to come under even more pressure: pressure to stay open longer at greater cost; and pressure from the cheaper prices offered by their larger rivals.

And what about the needs of shop workers? When do they get some time off? All in all, this doesn’t sound all that great for small businesses.

Counter arguments (another groan) from the big guns

Sainsbury’s has been the first major retailer to publicly oppose longer Sunday trading hours. Mike Coup, its chief executive, says that there isn’t any customer or colleague demand for changing the current rules, which he calls a “happy British compromise”. At first glance, this seems surprising – after all, you’d assume his business (and his wallet) would stand to gain from it. But when you look at the subtleties, perhaps it’s not as clear cut as this.

At the moment, most of the larger supermarket chains can charge higher prices at their smaller “convenience” stores on a Sunday. And if they make sure they’re under 3000 sq ft, they can keep these highly profitable stores open longer than their larger counterparts. Possibly someone in the backrooms at Sainsbury’s has calculated whether the decreased business in smaller stores would be made up for in increased sales at the big shops. It’s a complicated equation, but surely it can’t have been far from Mr Coup’s mind when he made his remarks?

On the flip side, Asda’s chief executive is all for the changes. Asda doesn’t have any smaller convenience stores. Strange, that…

What next?

Nothing yet: it’s that old story of watch this space. The planned vote has been delayed to give ministers more time to win MPs’ support.

Polls indicate that three quarters of the public support the current rules, but whether that’s taken into consideration remains to be seen. For small businesses, the future could be bleak as they struggle to compete with the big boys on Sundays.

If you need some cheering up after all that, take a look at our guidance and documents for small businesses…

Simplify the Law

Apologies for the quality of the jokes – it must be to do with the longer nights. Just be grateful we didn’t do the one about Punday Trading…

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