Farewell to lazy Sundays and many small shops

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The Independent Online
WHAT have you planned for today? Church, then Sunday lunch of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding? If that's your idea of a typical sabbath, you are already in the minority.

Nowadays the average British family is more likely to head off for one of the growing number of hypermarkets, eat at the in-store coffee bar, look at and possibly buy what is on display, then go home to flop in front of the TV after a hard day's shop.

In the jargon it is called 'event shopping' or 'the shopping experience'. What happened on Wednesday, when MPs voted to extend Sunday shop opening hours, was merely to legalise what is already the reality. All the big supermarket groups - Sainsbury, Tesco, Argyll and Asda - have been opening selected stores on Sunday for up to two years in England (and for well over 10 years in Scotland).

In part this explains why share prices of stores and food retailers hardly blipped on Thursday, the first day of stock market trading after the historic Commons vote. Sainsbury and Tesco shares added just 1p; Safeway operator Argyll lifted 2p. The big mover was Asda, up 2.5p at 52p, because dealers expect it to benefit from increased sales of non-food items as a result of more family shopping on Sunday. In the short term, stockbrokers believe there will be little change to profits.

Allowing large shops to open for six hours on the day of rest merely puts companies already doing so on the right side of the law. 'If anything I am more strongly tempted to downgrade profit forecasts than upgrade them,' said Kit Jackson, retailing analyst at Charterhouse Tilney.

'Although the ruling is the best result for the supermarket groups it is also going to persuade more retailers to open on Sundays, adding to competition,' he said.

'Kwiksave will open where it can make a profit. So will Marks & Spencer. The size of the market will remain fixed, but costs incurred will be for seven days rather than six.'

Frank Davidson, food analyst at James Capel, agreed, saying Sunday opening has largely been 'profit neutral'. Premium rates are paid to staff who are willing to work, although the differential is not as marked as it once was because there is no shortage of willing hands for Sunday shifts. He said Sunday supermarket opening was 'part of a longer-term issue of driving out weaker competition'.

He added: 'The small independent grocer has suffered quite badly. More will be driven out of business.'

Many small shops rely on Sundays to bring in up to a fourth of total weekly takings. This is hit drastically if a large store opens nearby on Sundays. Estimates of up to 10,000 small shops being forced to the wall, with the loss of perhaps 20,000 jobs, are probably not too wide of the mark.

Suppliers to these businesses will continue to be hurt. Nurdin and Peacock, the cash- and-carry supplier to lots of smaller grocers, was knocked for six when the supermarkets started Sunday trading.

Curiously, a winner from Sunday trading could be Marks & Spencer, which formed the backbone of the Keep Sunday Special campaign. One analyst calculates M&S annual profits could rise by up to pounds 30m if it opens on Sundays prior to Christmas. It won't happen this year. M&S has already said it will await a change in the law before introducing Sunday shopping in selected locations, and legislation is not expected until June at the earliest.

But Ian McDougall of Nikko sounded a word of warning on the scale of M&S Sunday profits. 'M&S was backing the most restrictive (Sunday shopping) option,' he said. 'This must reflect some concern over the benefits of Sunday trading to the company.'

Edge-of-town retail centres and shopping malls are likely to be the busiest places on Sundays, he said, where parking is easy and shoppers have a greater choice than in visiting one- off retail stores.

He said Dixons and Currys, the electrical retailers, will probably open more stores, but others will only do so if the exercise is profitable. DIY outlets and garden centres look set to remain open on their most important trading day.

Little change is predicted on the high street, although it may spring into life to catch Christmas trade. But everyone may have to foot the bill for the increase in Sunday activity. More street cleaning and extra services in the way of monitoring trading standards and environmental health regulations will be needed, which is likely to push up council tax bills.

Sundays, as experienced by legislators in the 1950s when the last Shops Act was drawn, have gone for good.

(Photograph omitted)

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