It has been 15 years since the law changed allowing retailers to open for six hours on a Sunday and some retailers say it’s high time the rules were relaxed further. Sara McCorquodale reports

Sixteen years ago the high street on a Sunday afternoon looked unrecognisable compared with its modern-day counterpart.

Shops were prohibited from opening and the day remained one of faith and family for many. The Sunday Trading Act 1994 changed all that for good. After a long campaign retailers were permitted to trade, albeit with limitations, and the way the UK shopped was unequivocally altered.

But on the law’s 15th anniversary, some retailers are now questioning if the strict conditions placed on Sunday opening are still relevant. In today’s 24-hour society, is it outdated to forbid larger shops from trading for more than six hours on Sundays?

Opinion remains divided but there is strong argument for change. The rise of transactional websites and the popularity of home shopping means closing retail doors no longer stops consumers from spending.

Selfridges chief executive Paul Kelly is one top retailer who thinks that the law is outmoded and should be reviewed. He says: “15 years ago the world was a very different place. Today lots of couples work; on Sunday they want to go out and do things, go to the shops, have a lunch out.

“15 years ago ecommerce was in its infancy. Now you can shop 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and if you look at the statistics, Sunday is as busy online as any other day.”

With the recession forcing so many retailers into receivership, Kelly believes reassessment of Sunday trading restrictions is necessary. “With so many shops closing and people going out of business, this is a very valid time to look at this issue again,” he says.

Original objections to extending Sunday trading hours, such as on religious grounds, carry less weight than in the past. Each Sunday an estimated 4.5 million people across the UK go to church, but 7 million have an altogether more Swedish epiphany by visiting Ikea.

And the fact that the Sunday trading rules already vary around the country makes remaining restrictions even more difficult to understand. In Scotland, for instance, Sunday trading is completely deregulated. But in England and Wales it is still illegal for shops occupying more than 3,014 sq ft to open for more than six hours between 10am and 6pm.

However, retailers are divided over any further liberalisation of Sunday trading. While Marks & Spencer maintains a neutral stance on the issue, Ikea, Asda and B&Q have previously lobbied the Government for change.

Ikea was part of a lobby group including Tesco and B&Q, called My Sunday My Choice, which campaigned three years ago for the law to be changed.

Ikea chiefs believe retailers and the Government alike will not know what consumers want unless they are given choice. The world’s largest furniture retailer is in favour of Sunday trading being completely deregulated to allow retailers the option of opening 24 hours everyday, regardless of store size.

An Ikea spokesman says: “Shoppers continually tell us that they want to be the ones who decide when they shop. If the law were to be changed then consumers will vote with their feet and shops will respond to the choices consumers make. In a world where anyone can shop online 24/7, it doesn’t make sense to force customers to shop in a limited period on a Sunday.

“For many retailers including Ikea, Sunday is now one of the busiest trading days. However, the trade is condensed into a very short shopping window. This can result in very busy stores, with long queues, challenges in maintaining stock levels and a range of other issues that make it more difficult to ensure the right customer experience.”

Like any other day

Asda, which was also part of the 2006 group, agrees. Given the choice, it would open its stores from 9am to 6pm on a Sunday. Asda customer service project manager John Barnsley said: “People no longer just work Monday to Friday – these days, the weekend doesn’t exist. A lot of operations do business seven days a week and people work shifts that cover all hours. It would suit the public more for us to open for longer on a Sunday.

“I remember the first time we opened on a Sunday. We shared a huge car park with M&S, which was one of the only retailers that chose not to open. It was so busy, we had to close the door twice just to let customers do their shop and we managed to fill the whole car park. If you’re talking about opening hours and what the customer wants, that said it all.”

A report published by the Department of Trade and Industry in 2006 revealed 5.6 million adults aged 16 or over shop at supermarkets every Sunday and 2.8 million shop at other large stores. In total, 1.5 million visit both types of retailer. More than one third of people in the UK visit supermarkets and large shops once a month on a Sunday.

Despite these figures, the then Trade Secretary Alistair Darling stated at the time that there was “no substantial demand for change” and thus the regulations remained.

The British Retail Consortium takes an impartial position. When questioned on its stance, a spokesman said: “We’ve had no indication this issue will be on the political agenda again in the foreseeable future. Some retailers are in favour of further liberalisation, others are not.”

Geoffrey Silman, a consultant for law firm Finers Stephens Innocent who worked on the 1994 Act, says: “There are a number of areas where the law could be relaxed. There are several loopholes and six-hour trading doesn’t apply in petrol stations and railway stations anyway. Since the act came into force you will notice stores have opened up in petrol stations and railway stations are like shopping centres.”

Several retailers have found ways to open for longer on Sundays while remaining within the confines of the law. Sainbury’s, Tesco and M&S all retail from either – or in some cases both – petrol and railway stations.

Silman adds: “We have to look at how much damage it would do to independent shops if the laws were relaxed and how much shoppers are inconvenienced by six-hour Sunday shopping. For example look at the massive congestion on the roads when shopping centres open and close on a Sunday.

“My personal approach towards it is, if the law is going to be relaxed, 24-hour shopping might as well be permitted. There are so many loopholes to get round the six-hour limit anyway and you always see people hovering round outside shops waiting for them to open. As a law, it is outdated.”

A special day

But one stumbling block for deregulating or relaxing Sunday trading laws could be retailers’ own workforces. In 2006, shopworkers’ union Usdaw found 95% of its members were opposed to any extension to the six-hour limit because they wanted to spend time with their families.

The union was backed by pressure group Keep Sunday Special, which says it would campaign against change again should retailers lobby for the law to be amended. A Keep Sunday Special spokesman says: “Our main concern is about 420,000 people already work on a Sunday. On any given Sunday, 1.5 million parents are working when they should be with their children. Do people really have the choice not to work on a Sunday? I’m not so sure. A lot of workers don’t have protection from working on Sundays and that’s why, as an organisation, we have to keep going. We are concerned about how this could damage relationships.

“My question to the retailers is why can’t you show us proof that people want longer Sunday opening hours? What we have now is a compromise. We are not particularly happy with it and nor are the retailers but this must mean we have met in the middle.
If they try to campaign against the law we will form the same coalition with faith groups and the Association of Convenience Stores that we did in 2006 and fight against them.”

Both Ikea and Asda argue that no one is forced to work on a Sunday and creating shifts on this day results in work for those who do not have a spouse or children.

Kelly says: “The argument against Sunday trading was that it would destroy the social fabric of the country. It hasn’t done that. The social problems we have, things like binge drinking, they’re nothing to do with shopping on a Sunday”.

An Ikea spokesman said: “Ikea co-workers also have the opportunity to opt out of working on Sundays by giving their managers due notice. Working on a Sunday is popular with many co-workers, particularly students.”

Barnsley agrees: “The majority of people working Saturdays and Sundays are students, not mothers and fathers who would rather be with their families. I’m a church-goer and I do believe we should keep Sundays special but I think it’s about customer and colleague choice. If they don’t want to shop on a Sunday they don’t have to and nobody here is forced to work a Sunday.”

Kelly supports that view and says that good employers will accommodate employee requests to have certain days off.

At the end of the day, those trying to provide a premium shopping experience are frustrated by the six-hour trading maximum. It leads to longer queues and failure to meet customer demands

Kelly says: “Sunday has become a very busy day and a very concentrated day’s trading, which means from a customer’s and a retailer’s point of view it’s not a very pleasant experience.”

Barnsley concurs: “Customer service would improve because the best thing you can give customers is time. Opening for longer would cut queues and help us provide a better service. Shopping is a necessity and we want to be able to accommodate our customers as much as we can.”

15 years on, the argument to re-examine the Sunday Trading Act 1994 seems strong. For retailers faced with customers visiting in their thousands each week, six hours may not be enough to provide a shopping experience that results in returning custom. In addition, in a world where people attend sports events, go to spas or spend their Sundays in pubs, is it logical to enforce a six-hour trading limit?

The law remains the same until further review, but by the looks of things this isn’t a fight some retailers are going to give up any time soon, certainly when every hour of trading matters so much.

Sunday Trading

A short history

1986

A bill to enable Sunday trading across the UK was rejected by Westminster. This was Margaret Thatcher’s only parliamentary defeat in her 11-year premiership

1988

M&S refuses to back the Deregulation of Shop Hours Campaign spear-headed by the British Retail Association

1994

The Sunday Trading Act allows shops in England and Wales to trade for six hours between 10am and 6pm

2006

A government review decided Sunday shopping hours would not be extended despite being lobbied by many of the country’s major retailers including Asda, Ikea and B&Q

2009

Shopping centres and stores in other tourist destinations in France are permitted to open seven days a week after the National Assembly voted to relax Sunday working law. Sunday Trading was first championed by president Nicolas Sarkozy in 2004