Chain store opens all hours

Simon Midgley watches as customers beat the Christmas rush by shopping through the night watches as customers beat the Christmas rush by shopping thro ugh the night
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Gypsy Re Bethe, an outlandish figure in a tall black hat and gloves with the fingertips snipped off, was in seventh heaven.

At about 4am yesterday he and a motley retinue of fellow musicians and girlfriends were revelling in a new-found freedom - the right to shop in the wee hours while the country at large slept.

The 42-year-old pop singer, busy until late in a recording session, had grabbed the chance to do a spot of pre-dawn last-minute Christmas purchasing. Hitherto, he would not have been legally allowed to shop after 10pm, but a new deregulation Act that came into force earlier this month now permits stores to open 24 hours a day every day, except Sunday.

And on Thursday night London's Clapham Junction branch of Asda, where Mr Re Bethe and his friends Phil Mason, 40, (bass guitar and keyboards) and Isabella and Janie were cavorting in the aisles, became the first major supermarket chain in the country to take advantage of this new-found freedom.

"Half the country is in bed at this time of night," Mr Re Bethe said. "It is quite normal for us to be up at this time of night. Lots of musicians and actors live in this area. We can see this sort of thing catching on. They should do it all the time."

Which is music to the ears of Archie Norman, Asda's chief executive, who decided to open the store for just over 57 hours from 8.30am on 22 December to 6pm on Christmas Eve. "We wanted to be the first to do it," Mr Norman said yesterday. "There are no prizes for coming second."

While Asda's decision to open all hours two nights running is a shrewd way of grabbing headlines during the busiest shopping spell of the year, Mr Norman insists it is also a serious attempt to test the water to see whether there is an unmet need in London - if not in the rest of the country - for opening hours more suited to the needs of busy inner-city workers.

And the experience of Thursday night and yesterday morning would seem to suggest that at certain periods of the year at least there is indeed such a need.

Between 10pm and midnight on Thursday the store was packed and all 23 checkouts were working at full blast - serving 1,321 customers. Between midnight and 6am the store served an extra 507 customers.

Although Asda is coy about saying how much money it took during these hours, given that many of these shoppers were doing their Christmas shop, it would not be unreasonable to suppose that it took at least £100,000. If this estimate is anywhere near the mark, then it will not be long before other supermarkets follow suit.

While Mr Gypsy Re Bethe lives locally, the shoppers to Clapham Junction came from far and wide. A British Rail chargehand who works until 2am drove from Caterham in Surrey with his pregnant wife and two-year-old son to do his Christmas shopping at 4.20am.

Akin Egibeti, a social worker from Enfield, was shopping at 3am with his fiancee, Laura, and 23-month-old daughter, Sumarah. "It's brilliant," he said. "It's saved us a serious headache. The mad rush, the pushing, the shoving."

They came from all over London. There were housewives, postal workers, British Rail night workers, restaurateurs, advertising photographers, resting actresses, architects, Asian families and waif-like 10-year-olds sans parents tearing around the store.

The rush of "ordinary" family shoppers lasted until 12.30am. At about 2am mink-clad and bow-tied, slightly tipsy partygoers descended, giggling and clutching each other for support. Transport and postal night-shift workers trudged in more wearily ar 3.30am. The dead period lasted from around 4am to 6.15am until the arrival of a new batch of still yawning and bleary-eyed housewives signified the start of yet another new nearly-last shopping day to Christmas.