The Way We Live: The 24-hour society edges nearer

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In America, where the consumer is king, many shops never close. While Britain still lags far behind, it has already taken the first tentative steps to becoming a 24-hour society.

First came all-night petrol stations, already taken for granted. Then followed round-the-clock grocery shopping, with many supermarkets staying open for hungry night owls.

Asda introduced 24-hour opening from Monday morning to Saturday night at seven of its hypermarkets earlier this month. It says that 50 per cent of customers who go in between 10pm and 1am carry out their full weekly shop.

Other major chains have followed suit, including Sainsbury's, which has all-night shopping at 25 branches, and Tesco, which is experimenting with selected stores. Were it not for Sunday trading restrictions, these retailers would never close their doors.

Last Easter, a branch of the DIY chain B&Q stayed open all night and reported healthy numbers of people stocking up on paint and wallpaper at 4am.

But it is not just shopping that marks the 24-hour society. People make twice as many telephone calls after 11pm than they did a decade ago, and one-third of banking transactions now take place out of hours. Telephone banking, pioneered by First Direct, has been eagerly embraced by other banks.

The globalisation of business, meanwhile, is breaking down traditional notions of office hours. Serious business people are at their desks at the crack of dawn to talk to partners in the Far East and are still there come nightfall to talk to America.

According to a report published last week by the Future Foundation, a commercial think-tank, most Britons approve of this trend. It found that 80 per cent think companies should provide telephone services outside normal hours. More than one-third said they wanted to shop late in department stores, while 58 per cent wanted pharmacies to open earlier and close later.

There is also strong demand, according to the report, for doctors and dentists to be available at night and at weekends, and for schools to open beyond standard hours.