Changes to Sunday trading won’t kickstart a retail recovery

Few issues divide the retail industry and fire up an emotional response like Sunday trading.

Some see any restrictions on trading hours as fundamentally at odds with a free market, others think it’s outrageous that we allow any retailing at all on a Sunday.

I respect both of those views, but I find myself aligned – personally and on behalf of the convenience stores I represent – with the majority of the public who, time after time, tell us that they support the current compromise of allowing six consecutive opening hours on a Sunday.

The latest scores on the doors, from a Populus poll last month, suggest 58% of the public support the current Sunday trading rules, while the 21% who oppose them are more or less evenly split between the two camps mentioned above.

So why are we discussing this again? Early in the Covid-19 crisis, grocery sales rocketed through a mix of panic buying and additional shopping for the food and drink no longer being consumed in foodservice.

Some supermarkets wanted more time to service this demand, but within a couple of weeks that demand for more opening hours subsided, and what took over was a desire to support harassed, tired and anxious colleagues, resulting in a reduction in opening hours across the week.

It was therefore logical that rumoured plans to extend Sunday opening hours didn’t come forward at that stage.

Now the debate has resurfaced amid reports that the government wants to suspend Sunday trading restrictions as part of a plan to reinvigorate the economy as we emerge from the worst of the Covid-19 crisis. It’s not crazy to consider this, but it is the wrong approach.

How effective are additional Sunday trading hours as a driver of growth? We can answer this question with some certainty, because when these laws were relaxed during the 2012 London Olympics and Paralympics, we saw a 0.2% decline in sales, according to the Office for National Statistics.

All that happened was a shift in sales from small to large stores, the result of which – Oxford Economics predicted – would have sparked a net loss of 3,720 jobs if the new trading hours had remained in place.

Retail Week readers will have followed the various government and industry-commissioned reports into the high street in recent years. There have been seven of these since 2011 – and not one of them has identified ending Sunday trading restrictions as part of a plan to reinvigorate the high street.

Staking the future of the high street on this measure shouldn’t just worry people like me who campaign against these changes, it should worry everyone who is invested in the high street emerging stronger from this crisis.

If this is the solution, why has it been overlooked so many times before?

Those are the economic arguments against this proposal. I’ll skip over the many strong social reasons why many oppose this move, but I do want to dwell on what relaxing Sunday opening hours would say to two important groups of people: small shop owners and retail colleagues.

The efforts of both of those groups in recent weeks have been nothing short of extraordinary. Convenience stores have served their communities better than ever, introducing delivery services, schemes for vulnerable customers, volunteer programmes, and seeking out food and pharmacy supplies when their usual route came up short.

Shopworkers have kept coming to work when many feared absence rates would scupper our whole industry. They’ve handled the anxiety of being out and interacting with the public, while every day seeing messages that people should stay at home for their own safety. They’ve managed angry and worried customers and implemented new policies on social distancing and PPE.

Nine in every 10 shopworkers oppose changes to Sunday trading laws, and literally every convenience store operator opposes these changes, too. So, if this is how the government thanks these people, you can understand why that feels like a kick in the teeth.

Finally, you have to ask which places longer Sunday opening hours would benefit. Possibly the West End, but I doubt even they would see a noticeable uptick in trade.

By contrast, convenience stores trade in every village, housing estate and outlying area in the country. Pressing ahead with this policy would quite reasonably prompt us to ask whether “levelling up” is a serious government agenda or just a slogan.

This blog first appeared as a comment piece for Retail Week, available here.

This entry was posted by Chloe on Tue, 09/06/2020 - 09:21