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A day of rest? The great Sunday trading debate


In the aftermath of yesterday’s surprising Budget, George Osborne’s proposal to consult on a relaxation of Sunday trading laws was overshadowed by some of the more unexpected announcements. However, in the world of retail it had already sparked a polarised response. For its opponents, it strikes at the heart of two deep-seated and dearly-held values: that Sundays should be sacrosanct, and that the government has a duty to give the Davids of retail a helping hand against the supermarket Goliaths.

 

The debate seems to revolve around wildly different interpretations of fairness. For shopworkers’ union Usdaw, removing workers’ right to a day off is an affront to national values, and one that it will “vigorously” oppose. For some large supermarket chains like Asda, on the other hand, the fact that consumers are often forced to pay more on Sunday evenings – when their only option is to shop in smaller stores where prices are higher – is an irrational state of affairs that ought to be stopped.

 

This perceived injustice is likely to be given short shrift by small business groups. The Association of Convenience Stores argues that the current rule preventing larger retailers opening for more than six hours on a Sunday is one of the few advantages small shops can claim over their dominant rivals. To take it away, it claims, would put these stores at risk and threaten already beleaguered high streets.

 

The economic arguments are equally unclear. According to research by the New West End Company, which represents more than 600 businesses in central London, just two extra hours of Sunday trading could create almost 3,000 jobs in the capital and add more than £200m in annual sales. However, the Association of Convenience Stores said that during the Olympics, when restrictions were temporarily relaxed, sales actually fell by 0.4% and some smaller retailers suffered declines of up to 20 percent. And then there’s the question of online shopping, where opening hours simply don’t apply.

 

Amongst the numerous claims and counter-claims, one thing is becoming clear. Sunday trading, it seems, is an area where economics and emotion are inextricably linked. With the consultation yet to begin, it remains to be seen which will win the day.

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