The major multiples stretched the Sunday trading laws to their limits last Christmas Eve, opening half an hour early to allow shoppers to "browse" before the tills swung into operation. While this may not have been in the spirit of the law, which prevents stores larger than 3,000 sq ft from trading for more than six hours on a Sunday, most observers agree the move was legal because of a loophole created by Whitehall pen-pushers: the legislation states that the six-hour period applies to "trading", not "opening". But this legal nicety did not cut much ice with the independent sector, many of whom suspect that the multiples would love nothing more than to do away with the Sunday restrictions. Spar UK md Morton Middleditch, who led the campaigning over Sunday trading legisation in the early 1990s, comments: "Browsing is the thin end of the wedge and unless we do something about it, it will become accepted. Anything which allows c-stores to keep ahead of the trade is vitally important." Alan Toft, director general of the Federation of Wholesale Distributors, is hoping the new Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs may be able to influence the situation. He comments: "Last Christmas the superstores discovered the loophole in the Sunday trading legislation. "This Christmas will see the superstores using Sunday, December 23, as a peak trading day and we are challenging the giants to resist the temptation to open for browsing on that Sunday when legal trading is limited to six hours. This means that shoppers will be attracted to superstores earlier than normal and away from local shops on this Sunday prior to Christmas Eve. We believe it is worth bringing the attention of DEFRA to this issue because it is new to the matter. It may help. "Last year the Home Office said that it could not act against the superstores because the legislation refers to trading hours rather than opening hours. A legal challenge to the superstores is not practical because of the huge cost. We would hope that the spirit of Christmas and fair play would operate this year." The multiples, however, all say it is too early to be specific about their opening plans but there are indications that the independents will be disappointed. A spokeswoman for Safeway says that, as last year, the decision on browsing would be taken at a local level at the discretion of store managers. Asda, too, is likely to make the decision locally. A spokesman says the policy has not been finalised, but the retailer would probably match any local competition that opted to open early. Sainsbury and Tesco both say that it is too early to say, but neither would rule out browsing. {{FEATURES }}