Retailers get the message on Sundays

As NatWest jumps in, sales indicate seven-day shopping is here to stay, writes William Kay
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The Independent Online
HELL and damnation, or their latter-day equivalents, are predicted by Michael Schluter, the director of the Keep Sunday Special campaign, after three months of legal Sunday trading in Britain.

"As we predicted,'' he said, "the domino effect is happening. We are in danger of becoming like California, with children being checked for guns as they go into school, as a result of the social and moral breakdown that could result. Sunday trading is another nail in the coffin that contributes to social fragmentation. People won't be able to spend as much time with their children, and surveys show Sunday is the day when people visit an elderly person.''

While it is understandable that Dr Schluter should retreat into extremism, having lost a decade-long campaign to prevent any but the smallest shops from opening on Sundays, few share his apocalyptic vision of the consequences of doing business on one more day a week, .

Another bastion falls today, when National Westminster Bank opens 23 of its 2,500 branches as an experiment. They will be open next Sunday as well, in what amounts to an extension of the banks' Saturday opening - aimed principally at mortgage and at personal loan business.

"We feel it's an opportunity to give our customers better access to us,'' said Anthony Frost of NatWest's press office.

As usual, rival banks have so far declined to follow NatWest. But on past form, they will soon be opening on Sunday as well if their computer printouts show clients slipping away.

"Our evidence suggests that mortgages are a service where people do shop around to get the best deal,'' Mr Frost added. "And they have time at weekends to do that. It's all part and parcel of the increasing competition on the high street.''

And not just on the high street. It is no coincidence that one of NatWest's 23 Sunday branches is in Gateshead's Metro Centre, in Tyne & Wear, one of the first, biggest and most successful of the US-style shopping malls. So far, these centres have been the biggest gainers from the new law.

Paul Keenan, the Metro spokesman, said.: "We have had in excess of a million shoppers, including 105,000 last Sunday. We are bringing in coach trips from Scotland, Yorkshire and Cumbria. People are even coming here on weekend breaks.''

At Lakeside Thurrock, by the Thames in Essex, press officer Heather Davis said: "It's been very strong on Sunday. It's already our second busiest day after Saturday, accounting for 20 per cent of the week's takings. We get 100,000 every Sunday, from as far as South Wales, Devon and the Midlands, and spending an average of £100 a head. It's a family day, when both decision-makers can visit together and make up their minds about household items like televisions or washing machines.''

Eileen Donaldson acts as managing agent for 50 centres around the country, including Brent Cross in north London, the Waverley centre in Edinburgh and the Quadrant, Swansea. She said: "Our retailers tell us that the Sunday spend has been additional to their normal business. They report no drop in trade on other days.''

A key factor in the centres' success is that virtually all their outlets are open, while even in the run-up to Christmas less than half of the shops in Oxford Street, London, are open.

"No one in Oxford Street is gung-ho about Sunday trading,'' said Sally Collinson of the local traders' association. "It represents a huge overhead for the department stores.''

But that attitude may have to change. On Friday a survey of 2,761 stores by the commercial estate agents, Healey & Baker, showed one in seven is open on Sunday, and those that are have increased turnover by an average 9 per cent.

Paul Orchard-Lisle, Healey's spokesman, said: "The conclusion is that more than half of the increased turnover is being won from traders and locations that do not open on Sunday. That is potentially suicidal for the country's town centres. There has beenlittle co-ordination between retailers to establish a critical mass of shops open to the public, and the local authorities have done little to encourage conventional levels of public transport on Sundays, nor to regulate, nor provide good car parking facilities.''

But Hugh Clark, press officer for the lobbying group the British Retail Consortium, said: "Retailers will open only where demand requires it, because clearly there is an additional cost. But do-it-yourself and supermarkets have found Sunday to be a most important day in their week. I doubt if you will see all the shops open every day.''

The implication is that the Sunday traders are winning business not only from their Monday-to-Saturday rivals, but also from non-retail spending such as cars, holidays and financial services.

Richard Hyman, chairman of Verdict Research, argued: "It's irrelevant whether retailers make money out of Sunday trading. It's a question of competition and capacity. Shopping is not a totally functional, premeditated activity. Access and impulse are important, so one of the fundamental laws of retailing is to make yourself accessible to customers.''

While no one has yet identified which non-retail firms have lost to Sunday shopping, Verdict's figures show that since 1981 retail sales have fallen from 40.5 per cent to 36.1 per cent of total consumer spending. That trend may be about to reverse.

That reversal should be accelerated by the new freedom to stay open 24 hours. Few shops, apart from 7-Eleven, will do literally that, but several are considering staying open longer. In Glasgow, Dixons has had to respond to local competition from Tower Records by staying open till midnight. Late night shopping, California-style, is only just around the corner.