It is an age-old debate that splits opinion like few others in the world of retail: should Sunday trading laws be relaxed?

As the UK’s big supermarkets brace themselves for a fresh spike in demand during the Easter weekend and beyond, it is a question that has once again reared its head.

Executives from some supermarket chains are pushing for current laws – which only allow stores larger than 3,000 sq ft to open for six hours between 10am and 6pm on Sundays – to be relaxed during the coronavirus pandemic, as Retail Week has reported.

“The law on Sunday trading is among the handful of rules and regulations concerning retail that have failed to move with rapidly changing times”

They fear they simply cannot achieve their mission of feeding the nation without a temporary easing of those regulations.

Convenience groups and independent c-store operators, however, are concerned that such a move would unfairly impinge on their sales.

But amid the coronavirus crisis, the need to feed the nation has to take priority – and any regulations that can help retailers accomplish that goal must be seriously considered.

Storm brewing

The clamour for supplies that sparked a 20% jump in grocery sales during the four weeks to March 22 has admittedly subsided in the fortnight since – providing grocery retailers with some breathing space to rebuild stock levels.

The lockdown and introduction of strict social distancing measures have convinced more people to stay at home, rather than venture to their local supermarket.

But a second storm is brewing. Retailers fear the combination of the four-day weekend and depleting supplies in cupboards and freezers across the UK could kickstart another rush to the grocery aisles.

An additional couple of hours’ trading on a Sunday could make all the difference as retailers seek to serve as many people as they possibly can during the pandemic.

“It is archaic that shoppers don’t have the option of visiting a supermarket, a department store or a shopping centre much later than mid-afternoon”

There will, of course, be rumblings of reluctance – some from those who worry that, if relaxed temporarily during the pandemic, extended Sunday trading hours will remain in place permanently.

But would that be such a bad thing? The law on Sunday trading is among the handful of rules and regulations concerning retail – most notably the business rates system – that have failed to move with rapidly changing times.

The Sunday Trading Act that retail currently works under was introduced in August 1994 – when Wet Wet Wet was number one with Love is All Around, Terry Venables had just taken over as England football manager and precious few anywhere in the world had heard of a one-month-old company called Amazon.

Olympics precedent

In the quarter-century that has passed, that company has grown into a global goliath, radically reshaping retail and shoppers’ expectations. Consumers can now sit on the comfort of their sofas, ordering their next grocery shop, a new pair of jeans or some garden furniture, all while watching Match of the Day 2 at 10.30pm on a Sunday. It is archaic that these same shoppers don’t also have the option of visiting a supermarket, a department store or a shopping centre much later than mid-afternoon.

It is worth remembering that, even if the law were to change, retailers are under no obligation to make use of it. Businesses such as The Entertainer – whose founder Gary Grant has always insisted his staff should be able to spend Sundays with their families rather than at work – have proved that you can trade six days a week from stores and still be successful, providing you have the right proposition, good customer service and strong values that your customers believe in.

But that is a consideration for the longer term. Here and now, only a short-term relaxation is being mooted – and those who fear it would open the floodgates for more permanent change should remember there is a precedent.

In 2012, Sunday trading stipulations were relaxed by the government on eight weekends during the London Olympics and Paralympics. Those relaxations expired after those two months and rules returned to normal.

Efforts by Philip Davies MP to abolish or liberalise Sunday trading laws two years later, and proposals in the July 2015 Budget to reform the regulations, were both rejected in Parliament.

There is scope, and form, for temporary Sunday trading rules to be put in place in extraordinary circumstances. If it can be done for the pole vault, surely it can be done for a pandemic.