One of the seemingly perennial debates in retail is suddenly back on the agenda. Should large stores be able to open for longer on a Sunday?
After the launch of Open Sundays, a new group of campaigners for relaxation, reports in the press at the weekend suggested a groundswell of pressure building on the government to revisit this debate with major retailers such as Asda, Morrisons and Selfridges apparently lending their weight to the change campaign.
These reports were misleading, however, and not just in the suggestion that it was stores over 300,000 sq ft, as The Mail and subsequently others mistakenly put it, rather than 3,000 sq ft that were currently only able to open for the six-hour maximum on a Sunday.
The truth is retailers have not really shifted their opinions on this matter for years. Asda has always been the most vociferous supporter of relaxation, while Morrisons boss Dalton Philips has previously appealed for at least a couple of extra hours trading on Sundays.
“Our customers’ shopping habits have changed significantly in recent years with convenience ranking high,” says an Asda spokesman. “Retailers need to adapt to meet the needs of customers.”
What is new is Tory MP and vice chairman of the parliamentary retail group Philip Davies’ plans to amend the Deregulation Bill currently going through parliament, which would see either a total scrapping of existing rules or decision-making over opening hours put in the hands of local authorities. Davies and the Open Sundays campaign have yet to meet, but director Mark Allatt says he plans to do so over the next couple of weeks as he looks to secure further backing. So far he says Open Sundays has the support of major retailers including those involved in food and drink, although this is not understood to include Asda or Morrisons as yet.
Davies told The Grocer this week there was still plenty of time to amend the Bill and said the current rules were “simply anachronistic”.
“If people who own a shop want to open it, people want to go there and people want to work in it, who are we to tell them they can’t?” he argues.
“Lots of people talk about saving the high street and yet we are asking retailers to fight their online competitors with one hand tied behind their backs.”
Davies points to the 2012 relaxation during the Olympics as a reason for change. “The sky didn’t fall in then, did it?”
The weekend’s flurry of discussion has prompted those opposed to change to defend the status quo. In a statement, the Keep Sunday Special campaign sought to debunk the “myth” that the Olympic compromise was a success. “It is surely for those advocating change to highlight the evidence that shows the temporary suspension of Sunday trading regulations in 2012 actually resulted in a drop in business, not an increase,” it claims.
The likes of Keep Sunday Special and the ACS have managed to fend off calls for relaxation over the past 10 years. For Davies’s amendments to succeed, he will need the support of government or a majority of MPs behind him, neither of which looks particularly likely.
Another problem faced by those looking to change is that retailers are divided. While Asda and Morrisons might want it, there are as many, if not more, who don’t - particularly those with large numbers of sub-3,000 sq ft stores.