Sunday trading, brought within the law at last, is old hat for shoppers

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ONE of the longest-running, and fiercest retailing battles will formally end this week when Sunday trading finally becomes legally permitted. Customers, however, will be hard-pushed to notice the difference.

Supermarkets, DIY stores and other large out-of-town retailers have been open for business on Sundays, local authority permitting, for at least three years. Indeed, some DIY stores have notices apologising to customers that the new legislation will force them to open for fewer hours - six is the maximum permitted - than in the past.

From this weekend, the main new shopping venues will be some Marks & Spencer and Waitrose stores, a handful of House of Fraser department stores and the large out-of-town shopping centres, such as Lakeside in Thurrock, Essex, and Merry Hill at Dudley in the West Midlands. Town centre high streets will remain largely closed, except in the run-up to Christmas.

John Lewis, owner of the Waitrose chain, and Marks & Spencer were two of the most vehement campaigners against Sunday opening so their decision to give in is a significant victory for the retail reformers.

Waitrose has long complained that it has been losing business because its competitors have been breaking the law, and that is reflected in the decision to open about 18 of its 108 department stores 'in areas where we think customers will benefit' - which industry observers believe is a euphemism for those areas where it has been hardest hit by competition.

John Lewis department stores will, however, stay closed, even in the run- up to Christmas, reflecting the company's commitment to full-time staff - who account for more than three- quarters of its workforce - rather than less-experienced part-timers.

Marks & Spencer is also a reluctant convert. Its openings include tourist areas such as Blackpool, shopping centres such as the Metro Centre in Gateshead and other areas where it believes it would lose trade by staying closed. Almost all its stores will open in the run-up to Christmas.

Keep Sunday Special, the pressure group established to fight against changes to the law, has not stopped work. It says it will monitor the effects of Sunday trading on the environment, local residents and parking.

It will also continue to support employees who believe they are being penalised for refusing to work on Sundays. The legislation stipulates that working on a Sunday must be voluntary, and those who prefer not to must not be discriminated against. But KSS and Usdaw, the shop workers' union which also opposed Sunday trading, believe the clause is inadequate.